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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan GOP’s bid to block mask rules with budget looks dead on arrival

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will “oppose any attempts that diminish local ability to manage this pandemic or prevent local health departments from doing their jobs,” a spokesperson says. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

Oct. 4: COVID outbreaks in Michigan schools already 8 times higher than last year
Sept. 30: Michigan counties dump mask rules for thousands of pupils amid budget mess
Sept. 29: Whitmer signs $70B Michigan budget: What survived, thrived and died

MACKINAC ISLAND — After months of negotiations, the Republican-led Michigan Legislature on Wednesday approved a $70 billion budget, sending it to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a week before the Oct. 1 deadline.

But tucked in the deal are multiple provisions that prohibit mask and vaccine mandates, issues that have pitted the Democratic governor against lawmakers for many months.

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On Wednesday, Whitmer acknowledged that her administration negotiated everything in the budget with Republicans and, although she agrees with the “vast majority” of the items, there are some parts where she disagrees.

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She did not elaborate, but the budget contains language that would make it illegal to require state workers to get the vaccine and bar local public health officials from ordering school mask mandates.

The governor on Wednesday wouldn’t directly answer if she would veto the measures, although it is highly likely.

“We will do our task of going through line by line of the budget to see what is enforceable, what might not be enforceable,” Whitmer told reporters at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

“And then I will do my action and get it signed, and make some changes if necessary.”

Bobby Leddy, Whitmer’s spokesperson, said in a statement that the office is conducting a legal review on the budget bills.

He said that throughout the negotiations, Whitmer said “she would uphold the effective tools we have at our disposal to ensure public health and would not prohibit businesses, local health departments, schools, or other establishments from using all of the tools necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We will continue to support public health measures that protect people and save lives, but oppose any attempts that diminish local ability to manage this pandemic or prevent local health departments from doing their jobs.”

Steve Liedel, an attorney who worked as legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, told Bridge that lawmakers cannot ban vaccine mandates and limit the authority of health officials with a budget bill.

“When the Legislature attempts to do something through a boilerplate that the constitution prohibits them from doing, it is generally never enforced,” Liedel said.

“We have a state statute, which is the Michigan Public Health Code, that empowers the state and local public health officials to issue health orders,” Liedel said. “If the Legislature is not happy with that statute that a prior Legislature enacted, they are free at any time to go in and amend the public health code.

“But what the constitution doesn't permit is a shortcut.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, declined to comment on how the provisions would apply or whether he believed they are enforceable.

Abby Mitch, Shirkey’s spokesperson, told Bridge that Republicans “are pleased to have worked with our partners in the House and the administration to reach agreement on important matters like increasing accountability and transparency in public health orders.”

The budget — which has been hailed as historic by both Democrats and Republicans because of how much will be spent on issues such as childcare, and bridges — received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, told Bridge in a statement Democrats voted for it because they knew the provisions relating to health restrictions were not enforceable.

“This is nothing more than a political talking point,” Hertel said. “If some need to add meaningless talking points to this budget to justify voting yes, we should not let that distract us from celebrating this historic down payment on affordable child care, water quality, infrastructure job training, and more.”

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