GOP calls rare Friday session to strike down Whitmer’s emergency powers — which she can veto

By: - April 23, 2020 3:23 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

In an effort to preemptively block the stay-home extension Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to announce soon, the GOP-led state Legislature will meet for session Friday to check her powers — or at least try to.

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) announced the session in a tweet Thursday morning, writing that the special oversight committee created by a concurrent resolution will “examine our government’s response” on COVID-19 and that “Michigan needs to handle this pandemic seriously yet properly.”

The Legislature also plans to vote on bills stripping Whitmer of certain powers during emergencies, but this would amount to a political gesture, as she would veto them. 

As the Advance previously reported, the GOP-controlled Legislature has tried to cap the governor’s powers before she even took office during the 2018 Lame Duck session and after last year’s budget fight.

The current iteration of Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order is scheduled to expire Thursday, April 30, but Whitmer said she plans to likely announce another extension in the next few days. That order is expected to relax certain restrictions currently in place. Her first order went into effect March 24.

Michigan has more than 35,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 2,900 deaths.

Republican leaders contend that Friday’s session is necessary because the Legislature earlier this month only approved the state emergency declaration until Tuesday.

“The Legislature would have to act in order to extend the state’s emergency declaration set to expire on April 30,” said Amber McCann, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). “The governor’s ability to issue EOs such as ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ is dependent upon that declaration.”

Whitmer’s declarations of a state emergency and disaster cite two laws: The Emergency Management Act of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. Some legal experts contend that these give Whitmer the full, independent power to keep the state shut down on her terms during an emergency like COVID-19, while Republicans have largely argued otherwise.

Thus, Whitmer’s office continues to stand firm that the laws and the Constitution say the governor does not need the green-light from the Legislature.

“‘Stay Home Stay Safe’ does not require legislative authorization,” said Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown. “The governor has multiple sources of independent power for the actions she has taken in response to this emergency. She looks forward to working with the Legislature to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.”

The Legislature last met in person for a controversial April 7 session, which convened with the similar goal of limiting the duration of Whitmer’s emergency powers. Many lawmakers refused to attend, citing concerns over possible COVID-19 spread at the height of the state’s outbreak.

The Senate is expected to vote on Senate Bills 857 and 858 Friday. The bills would repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act and modify the duration of executive orders, proclamations and directives.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) released a statement sharply critical of the planned session, arguing that approving Whitmer’s orders should be the only reason for lawmakers to meet right now.

“Republicans should save their stunts for a time when Michiganders’ lives aren’t on the line. The last thing Michigan needs is a bunch of senators in a room congregating, risking exposure and potentially taking the virus back to their constituents and communities,” Ananich said.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said the action demonstrates GOP leadership’s willingness to pander to some business groups pushing to open the state economy back up, despite public health concerns. 

“Corporate lobby money talks and Lee Chatfield and Mike Shirkey are listening,” Scott said. “They want our government to function at the behest of monied interests rather than the interests of public health and safety.”

The group said it is considering a lawsuit against Shirkey and Chatfield over the meeting and backs the Legislature meeting remotely..

In a Facebook post Thursday, Shirkey spoke out about some of the more audacious Republican protests against Whitmer’s stay-home orders. Shirkey signaled that although he fully supports protesters in expressing their “deserved anger and opposition,” he urges them to stop short of personal threats and protests at the governor’s residence.

“I strongly exhort those organizing the protests to limit the venue to public spaces and around government buildings,” Shirkey said. “Don’t protest at homes. Even the public Governor’s residence. It is indeed public property. But the adjacent properties and neighborhood are not.”

But many made their way to the residence anyway, bearing loudspeakers, Trump-themed flags and a large parade float to protest in front of Whitmer’s residence Thursday afternoon. One of the organizers, GOP activist Brandon Hall, was convicted in 2016 of election fraud.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.