House votes to kill environmental order, Whitmer vows to defend it

By: - February 7, 2019 3:37 am

Early assurances of bipartisanship in Michigan’s new era of divided government may be coming to a halt.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs environmental measures alongside Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and EGLE chief Liesl Clark, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

On Wednesday, legislative Republicans sought to undo Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new executive order meant to better protect the state’s environment, as she vowed to defend it.

This comes after Michigan has been plagued by environmental crises with Flint water and PFAS contamination and residents have blamed the state for a slow response.

On Monday, Whitmer signed an order that formed a new regulatory body that she says is meant to better protect the state’s environment and public health.

It only took two days for House Republicans to vote to undo the measure — as the law permits — over Democrats’ objections. It was a 58-51 party-line vote.

The GOP-controlled state House approved a concurrent resolution Wednesday to “disapprove” Whitmer’s executive order, which reorganizes and renames the department in charge of protecting Michigan’s environment. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) became the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Whitmer’s order created three new offices meant to advocate for state residents’ environmental health concerns. 

To undo the order, the Senate would also have to approve the resolution — something that hasn’t happened since 1977.

Snyder panels scrapped

Lee Chatfield | Nick Manes photo

The measure also dissolved commissions in the former DEQ that gave more input to businesses on environmental rules. That’s the GOP’s main objection. However, environmental groups have criticized them as pro-business “polluter panels.”

Before the vote, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) noted that the commissions were created under Whitmer’s predecessor, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder.

“The main issue with this executive order is the abolishment of the three recently created legislative entities that serve as commissions,” Chatfield said. “Let me be very clear in reminding you that when these commissions were created, it was done so under a Republican administration. And we are simply seeking to uphold that under a Democrat administration.

“This resolution is blind to partisanship. This requires necessary public oversight from the people that we serve. We are literally talking about giving the people that we serve a voice.”

One prominent Republican has come out in support of Whitmer’s new orders. Candice Miller, a former congresswoman who’s now Macomb County public works commissioner, this week applauded the governor’s efforts to protect the Great Lakes. Miller said she “looked forward” to working with EGLE on water quality issues.

House Democrats spoke out angrily against the vote.

Padma Kuppa

“Gov. Whitmer promised she would take real action to fight for access to clean water, and this directive was an important first step to fulfilling that process,” said Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy). “It is disappointing, then, that despite the need for this kind of action and leadership, the legislative majority decided to stand in the way of that process today.”

Democrats also argued that previous governors from both parties have dissolved panels set up by their predecessors.

Both parties appear to have drawn a line in the sand over the issue. Whitmer didn’t waste any time in responding after the vote, promptly calling a press conference in her ceremonial office in the Capitol where she announced that she stands by her order.

“I’m not withdrawing the executive order. I stand by it. It is the best policy to protect people and to clean up drinking water,” Whitmer said. “We are confident this is the most meaningful thing we can do to clean up our water in Michigan. And today’s vote doesn’t change how strongly I feel about it.”

Dana Nessel, Oct. 16, 2013 | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the same day, Whitmer asked Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, to review the legality of forming citizen panels stacked with pro-business groups. The attorney general said she “will carefully evaluate” the request.

The governor said that environmental lawyers in Nessel’s office have informed her they believe “these commissions are unlawful,” and said she believes that will bear out in court, if need be.

“So for anyone to stand in the way of a reorganization to protect our water and clean it up based on a couple commissions that don’t even meet, that may not even be legal, I think is horribly irresponsible,” Whitmer said.

Since taking office, Whitmer and Nessel have been working hand in glove on a variety of issues, from health care to LGBTQ rights, which could foreshadow a united Democratic front against the GOP-controlled Legislature on any number of policy fights.

Bill Schuette

During last year’s Lame Duck session, it was Republicans who benefited from having a governor and attorney general of the same party. Then-AG Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the Legislature was within its rights to modify two ballot measures it had passed on minimum wage and sick leave.

That paved the way for Snyder to sign the bills cutting benefits.

House Republicans found themselves this week on the other side of another Lame Duck battle. They had supported measures to strip power from Whitmer, Nessel and now-Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, another Democrat who won in 2018. Democrats like strategist Angela Vasquez Giroux protested that the measures were “power grabs.”

But during this fight with Whitmer, GOP House members called her order a “power play” that removes citizen involvement in crafting environmental rules.

The next legislative step is for the Senate to OK the resolution.

Mike Shirkey | Michael Gerstein

The conversation would begin in a Senate committee hearing, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).

The Senate Oversight Committee was originally poised to take up the issue Wednesday morning and has another hearing scheduled for Thursday. The panel’s agenda had not been publicly posted as of this story’s publication.

Business lobby

Democrats and Republicans have long been starkly divided on the question of much influence industry groups should have on air and water quality issues.

Environmentalists have, for years, decried the sway that business-friendly lobbying groups have had in shaping Michigan’s environmental regulations.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce — one of the most powerful business lobbying groups in the state — came out against Whitmer’s order on Monday. By Wednesday, the GOP-controlled House voted to undo it.

Lake Superior | Susan J. Demas

Some Republicans suggested they might support the order if the governor simply removed the part axing the intra-department commissions. Republicans argue the panels are essential for creating environmental rules and rightly give more input to businesses and citizens.

But Chatfield, the House speaker, declined to indicate whether that would win his support. He told reporters after the vote that “bipartisanship is a two-way street,” and said the commissions are “legal and constitutional.”

He acknowledged Nessel’s review and said he would “leave the attorney general to do her job how she sees fit and was elected by the people to do so.”

James Lower

State Rep. James Lower (R-Cedar Lake), who sponsored the resolution, objected to the panels being characterized as pro-business.

“I wouldn’t agree that it’s business groups,” he said. “Yes, there’s some business groups on these boards. These are pro-private property groups, is the way I put it. And I think that is a serious divide between ourselves and the other side of the aisle — we think that everyday people’s voice should be represented in this rules-making process.”

Jason Geer, a lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, testified in committee earlier Wednesday to support Lower’s resolution.

“You can put business and environmental groups together and you can write really good rules,” he said.

Greer added that the panels were put in place to bring those groups together because the DEQ hasn’t done that well in the past.

“[Former] Gov. Snyder’s process proved that you can bring the environmental community, business groups and public health together … You have to give them a chance. Every stakeholder should have a voice in this process,” he said.

Enviros back order

Environmental groups praised Whitmer’s executive order on Monday. Many officials testified before a panel on Wednesday, prior to the full vote of the House.

They argued that the order is essential for ensuring clean drinking water in Michigan and fighting PFAS contamination.

“We’re at a moment where PFAS sites are being discovered all the time,” said Nick Occhipinti, lobbyist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “The governor needs to be armed with the authority to protect the public health of Michiganders. Period.”

James Clift, a lobbyist for the Michigan Environmental Council, said that business groups were afforded a say in the former DEQ’s rulemaking process. Thanks to the role of commissions, which Whitmer’s order abolished, the potential existed to indefinitely delay new environmental rules, he said.

Clift said that could have made it harder to protect the environment. He argued that the law made it tougher to remove organizations from the three commissions in question than to fire the a state department head, whose employment can be terminated without cause.

“They actually have greater protection than a department director. Who is really going to be left accountable?” Clift said.

Democrats on the panel agreed with the environmentalists’ position.

“For the life of me, regardless of what party we may belong to, we all have to breathe,” said Rep. Cynthia Johnson (D-Detroit). “… We all have a right to clean and fresh water. We all have a right to remain asleep at 2 a.m. in the morning, instead of being awakened by something that you think is going on in your house like gas.”

Johnson said that while businesses have enjoyed influence over environmental regulations in Michigan, regular people’s voices “have been eliminated out of these conversations.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.