Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Whitmer office photo
The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate on Thursday voted 20-15 to support the Unlock Michigan petition initiative, a measure designed to limit Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive powers to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The right-wing group turned in almost 540,000 signatures in October 2020 to overturn the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA), which the governor used as the basis for many of her health restrictions. Those emergency orders were opposed by many GOP lawmakers, business organizations and right-wing groups.
The Michigan Supreme Court overturned the law that month in a separate action. The Department of Health and Human Services issued epidemic orders after the state high court ruling, although all health restrictions have now been lifted.
As of Tuesday, Michigan had 896,717 cases and 19,832 deaths. Michigan is one of 47 states that has seen an increase in coronavirus cases in the last two weeks, per the New York Times tracker.
The Senate’s party-line vote came two days after the Board of State Canvassers approved the ballot measure. However, it failed to achieve an immediate effect, which would have allowed it to go into effect in 90 days.
The measure now moves to the state House for consideration. If the GOP-controlled lower chamber approves it, voters will not have their say at the ballot box. And Whitmer does not have the power to veto it.
Several Democrats strongly opposed the measure through floor statements. Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) said, “COVID-19 does not care which side of the aisle you sit on.”
“This petition will hamstring our leaders, leaders of both parties, from preventing or slowing the spread of a deadly disease,” she added.
Her colleague, Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), said that the effort had a degree of sexism to it.
“I don’t think it’s happenstance that we are voting to strip the second woman to hold Michigan’s top job the power granted to her by Michigan law,” said Polehanki.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) disagreed with Democrats who said that the chamber action “doesn’t take power away” from Whitmer.
“This a terrific affirmation of what citizens can do when they see their government out of control,” said Shirkey.
Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), who said that he carried Unlock Michigan petitions last summer, rose to support the measure. He called the Senate action a “people’s veto.”
Most polls have shown voters approve of Whitmer’s pandemic response.
The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the Michigan Board of State Canvassers must certify right-wing group Unlock Michigan’s petition signatures. On Tuesday, the body did so, and moved the group’s proposal to the GOP-controlled Legislature.
It was the second time the state high court made the ruling. In June, it said that the board had to sign off on the campaign’s signatures to repeal the 1945 EPGA that allowed Whitmer to issue her initial health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.
However, Keep Michigan Safe, an organization that has sought to block the Unlock Michigan effort, filed a motion for reconsideration.Keep Michigan Safe had conducted its own review of the signatures and found “numerous defective signatures, duplicates and errors by circulators.”
Michigan health experts criticized the Senate’s action.
“Once again, Republican legislators are more interested in scoring political points than protecting their own constituents with the guidance of scientific and medical facts,” said Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in west Michigan and executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care. “As a physician who cares for patients from all walks of life and who sees the devastation of COVID-19 up close, I am deeply concerned that politicians are putting the lives of Michigan families at risk by removing our state’s ability to respond quickly to public health emergencies.
“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decisions to ensure people stayed at home and socially distanced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were based on science, and they saved lives. That’s why, unfortunately, I fear the Legislature’s short-sighted and ill-advised decision to remove public health emergency safeguards will endanger people.”
The liberal action group Progress Michigan agreed.
“Michigan Republicans are proving yet again that their number one priority is taking pointless jabs at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” said Sam Inglot, Progress Michigan deputy director. “… Their move to ram through this proposal also continues a longer trend of the MIGOP using and abusing the petition drive process to pass extreme and unpopular policies.”
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