LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday issued an expanded disaster declaration and asked Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature to extend by 70 days her authority to take emergency actions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, appears to be on board with an emergency extension and is considering ways to meet next week without violating social distancing guidelines after one legislator contracted the virus and another died of a suspected link.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, indicated he could support a shorter extension but said the 70-day request — which would continue the emergency declaration through early June — is “too long.”
Whitmer told GOP leaders she believes she has “multiple independent powers” to continue addressing the crisis on her own but said acting under a state law that requires legislative approval “provides important protections to the people of Michigan.”
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The concurrent resolution she is asking lawmakers to approve would not change the expiration date of her earlier orders, including the stay-at-home directive set to expire April 14, but it would ensure she has the ability to extend that order or issue others if deemed appropriate.
“My administration must continue to use the full range of tools available to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our state and its residents,” Whitmer said in a letter to Chatfield and Shirkey. “I welcome you and your colleagues’ continued partnership in fighting this pandemic.”
The executive order Whitmer signed Wednesday replaces the state of emergency she declared March 10 with a broader emergency and disaster declaration.
The original order was effective for 28 days and was set to expire next week. It’s not immediately clear if the new order would last another 28 days.
Whitmer wants the Legislature to extend the new order before it expires “given that the public health risks associated with the Legislature meeting will only increase in the coming weeks,” said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown.
Chatfield plans to reconvene the House for session on April 7 “to legislatively extend the state of emergency,“ according to spokesman Gideon D’Assandro. “The House is reviewing details of the request.”
Shirkey said Senate Republicans agree that “emergency circumstances persist in our state” and could support a shorter extension than the 70 days Whitmer is requesting. The upper chamber is also tentatively scheduled to meet April 7.
Shirkey made clear that Senate support for a “reasonable extension” of the emergency declaration does not mean Republicans support a “lengthy extension” of Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which she has not proposed at this time.
The Senate leader, in a Facebook post earlier Wednesday, said Republicans are “pushing hard for surgically designed and incremental loosening of some restrictions” in that order, which forced the closure of many businesses. “It’s a tough call for our (governor), as you can imagine,” Shirkey wrote.
State Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, sent Whitmer a letter on Tuesday urging her to allow some “non-essential businesses” like construction crews and landscapers to resume operations so long as employees maintain social distancing recommendations.
“Many entities operate with just one, two or three people in any location at any given time,” Cole said. “Single-family new construction projects, remodels, pole barn/garages, landscaping, dock work, lawn maintenance, delivery of materials, and several other jobs can be completed with very limited social interaction and without jeopardizing public safety.
Whitmer’s request for the Legislature to extend her emergency authority would require the Michigan Legislature to meet for the first time since March 17, when lawmakers wrapped up a marathon session by approving a $125 million coronavirus response package.
A lot has changed in two weeks, including the unexpected death of state Rep. Isaac Robinson, a Detroit lawmaker whose mother suspects he had COVID-19. State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, has tested positive for the virus but was recovering as of last week.
D’Assandro said any future House meetings may look quite different.
“There are plans in place right now to limit the exposure, if in fact the Legislature needs to meet,” he said.
House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, earlier this week told Bridge Magazine she shared social distancing ideas with Chatfield before the Legislature met two weeks ago.
Despite new staff restrictions, Democratic lawmakers were still “very concerned about being at the Capitol for 12 hours and only voting on one substantive bill,” Greig said. “We definitely could have done better.”
Legislatures in other states have sought to meet in remote sites or taken creative approaches like having members check in one at a time on the floor to convene session, and returning to the floor one at a time to vote, she said.
“We have to make sure that we have the distance, and we’re not taking any chances,” Greig added.
D’Assandro told Bridge that staggered voting is among the options being considered by GOP leadership.
“Some of the details are being worked out, but there’s largely a plan in place,” he said.
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