LANSING — Michigan Republicans on Thursday thwarted Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to overhaul the state’s environmental department — a reshuffling she has called crucial to responding more quickly to widespread water contamination and addressing climate change.
In a 22-16 party-line vote, the Senate approved a resolution to “disapprove” her executive order to morph the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
The vote came just hours after a Senate committee disapproved the plan, and a week after the GOP-controlled House cleared the resolution in a party-line vote.
Thursday’s vote marked the first time since 1977 the Michigan Legislature rejected a governor’s executive order.
While the DEQ overhaul is wide-ranging, Republicans have largely focused on one grievance: The elimination of business-friendly panels lawmakers created last year to oversee agency decision making.
The issue was about "Who is taking complaints about a department that is abusing the people? Who is watching the watcher?” Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told colleagues on the chamber floor.
Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Republicans recognize Whitmer’s ability to reorganize the government, and want to partner with her. He invited Whitmer to send another executive order that leaves the disputed commissions intact.
Democrats, meanwhile, painted the resolution as a victory for polluting industries who have significant representation on the oversight panels — and a swipe against Whitmer’s efforts to clean up tainted water and air.
“This [executive order] was truly to protect citizens, said Sen. Jim Ananich, the Democratic minority leader. Republicans “just voted to allow polluters a free pass, and the citizens of Michigan took it on the chin.”
Whitmer's press secretary called it “disappointing to see the party of limited government vote for more government bureaucracy, but the governor remains undeterred.”
“She is committed to reorganizing this department so we clean up our drinking water and protect public health. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with the legislature to get this done, because Michiganders can't afford to wait for clean drinking water,” said Tiffany Brown
The dispute surrounds questions of policy and power, and it began Feb. 4.
That’s when Whitmer announced she’d create a new environmental agency to include a “Clean Water Public Advocate,” “Environmental Justice Public Advocate” and an “Office of Climate and Energy.”
The public advocates would accept, investigate and analyze complaints related to drinking water and environmental justice problems, and work within state government to address them.
The order would also create an interagency team — composed of agency directors across state government — to fix policies that disproportionately pollute low-income and minority communities from power plants and factories.
Whitmer has pitched the reshuffling, in part, as a response to Flint’s lead-exposure crisis triggered in 2014 and growing concerns about harmful industrial contaminants called PFAS communities are increasingly detecting in their waters.
But Whitmer’s order, written to take effect April 7, would also abolish the GOP-created commissions, angering legislative leaders. Whitmer has called the panels unneeded bureaucracy and said they flout federal environmental laws for timely rulemaking. Whitmer has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, for a legal opinion.
Republicans call the abolishment a de facto veto of bills the Legislature adopted last year under Whitmer’s predecessor, Rick Snyder. They argue that such commissions — backed by powerful groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — bolster transparency and check the environmental agency’s power, which Republicans and business interests complain can be overzealous.
Separately, Republicans also said they want Whitmer to more clearly define “environmental justice” if she issues a new order.
McBroom said Whitmer’s executive order creates entities that lack the transparency and accountability of the boards she sought to eliminate.
While Democrats have backed some form of oversight commissions in the past, they say the GOP-created commissions would only slow down Whitmer’s effort to strengthen environmental protections by giving industry more say.
Among the citizen boards Whitmer would nix: the Environmental Rules Review Committee, which has power to “oversee all rulemaking” of the DEQ and has held one organizational meeting.
Half of the 12 seats on the panel are slotted for business representatives. Former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed all members last year; another appointment for Whitmer doesn’t open until late 2020.
A separate Environmental Permit Review Commission resolves permitting disputes at the agency. Aggrieved parties trying to, for instance, alter floodplains, drill for oil, mine minerals — or do most anything requiring regulator’s permission — could seek relief.
The permit commission does not require members to come from specific professions, but State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he’s worried about it’s makeup, since it’s almost entirely composed of engineers and consultants who contract with people and companies seeking environmental permits.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for villainizing industry representatives as polluters.
Irwin said he doesn’t believe companies release toxic chemicals into the environment out of malice, but out of financial interest, and he turned to the Dr. Seuss book "The Lorax" to illustrate.
“I don’t think [the villain] intended to pollute. I don’t think he intended to fill the pond with gloppity glop. I don’t think he intended to cut down all the truffula trees. He just wanted to make more thneeds. He was just biggering and biggering and biggering,” Irwin said.
“Then all of a sudden the forest was gone.”