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Michigan Republicans poised to strip Gov. Whitmer of emergency powers

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan is the only state that allows legislators to adopt citizen initiatives without a governor’s consent or statewide vote. The Republican-led Legislature is poised to adopt a measure stripping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of emergency powers.

July 26: After limiting Whitmer powers, Unlock Michigan now targets local health orders
July 21: Michigan lawmakers repeal Whitmer powers months after court overturned them
July 15: Michigan GOP is repealing Whitmer emergency powers. It won’t change much.

LANSING — Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is poised to utilize a unique constitutional provision to repeal an emergency powers law Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had used to issue orders early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

And organizers who used a petition drive to advance the initiated legislation are preparing another drive to limit state epidemic orders to 28 days unless extended by the Legislature, continuing a power struggle even as the pandemic wanes.

The Board of State Canvassers paved the way for legislative action on Tuesday, when members ended months of partisan gridlock by certifying signatures for the initial Unlock Michigan petition that would repeal the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945.

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Michigan is the only state in the nation with a constitutional provision allowing the Legislature to adopt initiated legislation without the governor’s signature or a statewide vote. Unlock Michigan collected more than 460,000 valid signatures to advance the initiative, and lawmakers could adopt it this month. 

By law, Whitmer would be unable to veto the measure.

“It’s been a very long road, — we had a pandemic somewhere in the middle there — and now we’re going to get this done in the Legislature in the next couple weeks,” said Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek. 

The Senate is set to meet Thursday, and “seeing as opponents have finally run out of absurd challenges,” majority Republicans plan to take up the initiative as soon as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson plans to send it to them, said Senate GOP spokesperson Abby Walls.

The Republican-led House is tentatively set to meet next week and could finalize the repeal by voting then.

The effort is somewhat academic at this point: Conservative justices on the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated the emergency powers in October, ruling that legislators who passed the law in 1945 delegated too much of their own powers to the governor.

But Unlock Michigan and its GOP proponents argue it is still important to wipe the law off the books to ensure a more liberal court could not reverse the decision in the future. They contend Whitmer abused her authority by setting unilateral policies during the pandemic. 

Democrats on the canvassing board had refused to certify the petition amid allegations of circulator fraud but were twice ordered to do so by the Michigan Supreme Court. 

Canvasser Julie Matuzak joined Republicans to vote for certification on Tuesday, while fellow Democrat Jeannette Bradshaw was absent because of an illness.

“I’m into letting the process run its course,” Matuzak told Bridge Michigan after the vote. “There was an appeal, and the Supreme Court made an order, and I voted accordingly.”

After a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court invalidated the 1945 law in October, the Whitmer administration used a pandemic provision in the public health code to continue issuing COVID-19 orders through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Whitmer administration officially lifted all major pandemic orders last month, citing a dramatic decline in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. As of last week, more than 4.1 million Michiganders had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Now, Unlock Michigan will aim to limit those powers with a separate petition drive that would cap orders at 28 days unless extended by the Legislature, another effort that supporters say would restore a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. 

That petition drive will begin soon, and “we’ll be done shortly,” Wszolek predicted. 

“We’re good at this,” he added.

Canvassers on Tuesday approved an 85-word summary that will appear at the top of the new petitions, but opponents are challenging that summary and may pursue court action to try to derail the effort, said Mark Brewer, an attorney for a group called Keep Michigan Safe. 

Brewer argued the petition summary is “misleading” and should specify the initiative would not just limit the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19. He noted that “diseases stretching back centuries” have been the subject of public health orders and actions in Michigan, including tuberculosis and hepatitis.

The language approved Tuesday “fails to capture the negative, far-reaching public health consequences if this dangerous proposal is enacted,” said Mark Fisk, spokesperson for a new opposition group called Public Health Over Politicians.

Limiting state health department epidemic orders to 28 days unless extended by the Legislature “would radically shift decision-making authority from medical experts like nurses, doctors and epidemiologists to Lansing politicians and political appointees,” Fisk argued in a statement.

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