Coronavirus funding goes to Whitmer, Capitol closing Friday for tours, events

Legislative sessions haven’t been shut down yet

By: - March 12, 2020 7:43 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

To combat the global pandemic of COVID-19, the state Senate Thursday approved $25 million of state funding and $50 million of federal funding to combat coronavirus. 

It was part of a Fiscal Year 2020 supplemental spending bill, Senate Bill 151, which the House passed Tuesday. 

SB 151 allows for $10 million to be spent on responding to the contamination and sets aside $15 million for a response fund if needed, along with the federal funds, pending Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature.

The House also OK’d another budget supplemental, Senate Bill 373, for education spending, which is still awaiting final Senate approval.

The supplementals also include funding for Pure Michigan, the attorney general clergy abuse investigation, Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program, which assists students ages 25 and older obtain their associate degree or other certification, and more.

Whitmer has declared a state of emergency in Michigan and is encouraging social distancing and other protocols for Michiganders after two cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) were confirmed in the state. Eight cases have been reported, as of Thursday evening.

The measure came as the Michigan State Capitol Commission announced Thursday that it suspending all tours and events starting Friday through May 1. Tour groups were still going through on Thursday. The building will now be closed Saturday. 

State House and Senate sessions have not been canceled. Leaders are evaluating the situation and have implemented new policies for staff. The House is set to come back to order at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) on Thursday announced the Senate will adjust session schedule beginning Monday to meet only as needed. Going forward, Shirkey will evaluate the need for sessions on a weekly basis.

“At this time, we plan to meet next week for session to address any pressing legislation and continue our work on the budget. I’ve also asked my colleagues to apply the ‘as needed’ rule to committees and hold hearings only as needed,” said Shirkey. “The governor has asked citizens to limit social interactions, especially congregating in large groups, and we intend to lead by example.”

Senators and staff will continue to work and be accessible to the public but have been encouraged by Senate leadership to take active measures to reduce public interaction, especially when it comes to hosting and participating in large events and gatherings.

The Senate will permit all staff older than 60 or those with underlying health conditions to work from home. Non-essential staff may be permitted to work from home. The Senate also will prohibit all non-essential out-of-state work travel by Senate employees and will require senators and staff to report all out-of-state travel to leadership.

The Senate will prohibit all tours, receptions, and other Senate-sanctioned public gatherings. All measures will be in place until April 20 and Senate leadership will reevaluate.

“It’s imperative that everyone do their part to prevent the spread of the COVID-19,” Ananich said. “During these unprecedented circumstances, member offices are still available to assist constituents with their concerns even if the Senate is not meeting. The Senate stands ready to act if anything requires our immediate action.”

In the House, Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said Thursday there are no reported cases of COVID-19 among House or Capitol employees, but the body is taking preventative measures.

Public access to the House Office Building, which houses member offices and meeting rooms, will continue, but the sergeant at arms may restrict access to unoccupied member offices.Non-essential out-of-state work travel by House employees is prohibited.

On days the House is in session, Chatfield said essential, non-vulnerable staff (those younger than 60 with no relevant chronic health conditions) shall report to work. Non-essential and vulnerable staff may work from home.

When the House isn’t in session, non-essential staff shall work from home, he said.

“We need to do our part to help limit the spread of this virus to vulnerable populations, while still doing what we can to keep our state functioning and remaining available for possible future legislative action on this situation,” said Chatfield. “As health officials and experts learn more, we will continue to review our policies and consider further improvements to keep the public safe. But this is the best path forward with the information we have now, and we are going to act to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

Since some residents have panicked over COVID-19, they’ve rushed to stock up on hand sanitizer, face masks and toilet paper in stores across the state and businesses have taken note.

Attorney General Dana Nessel also is warning residents to look out for price gouging of sanitary items, as dramatically raising the price of those items violates the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.

Sens. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) on Thursday announced legislation drafted in consultation with Nessel that aims to enhance existing investigative tools, add criminal penalties and expand the ability to apply price-gouging enforcement efforts to business-to-business relations.

“No one in Michigan should be profiteering off of #coronavirus,” Moss wrote on Twitter Thursday. “We need the tools to go after unscrupulous individuals who gouge the price of essential supplies and exploit vulnerable people.”

The three-bill package focuses on consumer goods, including emergency supplies, lodging and energy products like gasoline or propane. The bills consider an action to be price-gouging when a retailer sells items or services at a price increase of more than 10% above the price it was sold for immediately before the emergency (lodging, supplies) or market disruption (energy products). Under the proposed legislation, the seller will be given the opportunity to demonstrate that the increase was justified.

“As attorney general, part of my responsibility is ensuring Michiganders and visitors to the Great Lakes State are being treated fairly by the businesses in our communities,” Nessel said. “This legislation helps further protections for consumers and gives my office and local prosecutors additional tools to investigate violations and enforce the law.”

Coronavirus information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.