GOP Legislature rebuffs Whitmer, only extends state emergency to April 30

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (right) | Allison Donahue

The GOP-led Legislature shot down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend the state of emergency order 70 days due to COVID-19, instead extending it only to April 30. 

After lengthy health screenings for those entering the Capitol, the House and Senate passed the resolution on Tuesday in under 20 minutes combined.

Whitmer announced the state of emergency on March 10 after the state’s first two COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, the number of cases in the state has risen to 18,970 and the death toll stands at 845. Michigan has the third-most cases in the country.

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Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) introduced the 70-day extension that was replaced by the 23-day extension Republican leaders backed. 

“The coronavirus waits for no one, and that’s why Gov. Whitmer must be equipped with the full authority to respond to this pandemic quickly,” Ananich said in a statement after the vote. “We tried to extend the state of emergency for the full 70 days as requested, but at the end of the day this shortened time frame is what was in front of us for a vote. I wish the extension was longer, but we will continue to keep moving forward and doing our jobs just like millions of Americans are being asked to do.”

The Senate finished its meeting in under 15 minutes. The House performed health checks and attendance for about three hours, finishing its meeting in under 5 minutes. 

In spite of the health measures, the sessions stood in opposition to guidelines from state and federal health officials who advise people not to go out in public unless it is absolutely necessary during the next two weeks, and to limit meetings that require close contact.

Many legislators wore masks at the Capitol. Fourteen of the Senate’s 38 members were excused and 30 of the 109 House members were.

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Republicans contend Whitmer’s order was set to expire Tuesday, which is why they had to come back into session. However, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said that since the executive order issued Wednesday both declared a state of disaster and expanded the already-issued state of emergency, both declarations extend through April 28 by law.

In her order last week, Whitmer cited authority from two laws, the Emergency Management Act of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945.

She was asked Tuesday on call with reporters why she would ask for an extension from the Legislature at all, especially given the broad powers derived from those laws.

“We know that some of the scope of my powers are absolutely covered,” Whitmer said. “… But when it comes to the Emergency Management Act, in particular, it’s really important that the Legislature continues to extend the state of emergency just for one specific reason … the special liability protections afforded to first responders and health care workers. And it’s something that is really important for the Legislature continue to extend the state of emergency because the special protections for our first responders, we believe derive from that particular power that’s been afforded to the executive.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said that 23 days “gives plenty of time” to watch the COVID-19 numbers and make decisions. State health officials have predicted that Michigan cases will continue to rise through April and possibly into May.

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He also denied that there was a partisan element to the GOP Legislature’s actions Tuesday.

“There was no political message in today’s actions,” Shirkey said in the press conference. “It was a difference of opinion, a calculated difference of opinion, and we have the flexibility to extend it beyond if we need to.”

Not all Democrats were convinced. State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City), an attorney who didn’t attend session, issued a scathing critique on Facebook Tuesday morning.

“Today, the State Legislature will conduct a sham session,” he wrote. “After roll call, which will take hours, Republicans will announce the result they want. There will be no voting. No yeas or nays. No amendments. No debate. No speeches. It’s a farce. It’s farcical nature will become apparent as the Executive Orders are extended, based upon the advice of public health officials, as if the Republicans did nothing today — and the Republicans will not go to court over it. Appeasing the base is such a bad look at this time.”

For her part, Whitmer told reporters of Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), “As I’ve said all along, we’ve actually been working really well together. I think that obviously, we don’t agree on the length of the state of emergency — the action they took today. 

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“But you know what, that’s their decision. They can come back as much as they want to, even though it’s contrary to all the best practices that our medical professionals and our epidemiologists are telling us. And I do worry about their safety.”

Whitmer noted the death of state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), who died in late March of COVID-19-like symptoms. State Reps. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) have both tested positive.

On Tuesday, Robinson’s seat was shrouded in black, as is customary for a lawmaker who dies, something noted by state Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth).

“At the end of the day, they can do that,” Whitmer added, “and I’m not going to weigh in much more than that.”

The state Senate and House are set to reconvene in person on April 16 and then again on April 30, before returning to normal session days. 

Due to concerns about coming in for future sessions, House Minority Leader Christine Greig, (D-Farmington Hills) proposed a resolution to temporarily allow legislators to work and vote remotely in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Chatfield said remote voting is not allowed under the state Constitution, but legal experts question that. The resolution was ultimately not taken up.

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Workgroup focused on business impact

Whitmer put the state under a stay home order on March 24, something many business groups opposed, as it shuts down all but essential businesses like hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants for takeout. In the last few days, several Republican legislators have called for more industries to be allowed to reopen quickly.

In between the House and the Senate votes, Shirkey and Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) talked about the new “Safe Behavior for Safe Workplaces” Senate workgroup in a Zoom press conference.

The workgroup serves to only provide advice to the governor, Horn said, based on input from business and health experts, as well as media reports.

The purpose of the taskforce, according to Horne, is in three parts, in this order:

  • Health and lives of all Michiganders
  • The people’s mental health and their livelihood
  • To put Michigan back on track for a healthy economy

The suggestions will start with small changes, Shirkey said, starting with looking at the possibility for businesses he said don’t require face-to-face interaction such as lawn-mowing services.

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Since the COVID-19 outbreak hit Michigan, the state economy has taken a dramatic hit. Many businesses were laying workers off before the stay home order limiting who can go to work, but it’s accelerated in Michigan. As of last week, Michigan ranked 4th in the country for unemployment insurance claims. Whitmer said Monday that 800,000 people have filed.

Businesses that require close contact such as hairdressers and restaurants may take longer to get back into regular work, Horn said, but “one-man operations will be able to more easily start again once the state gets past the peak of the virus.”

One of the reasons the task force is launching today is because with the growing number of COVID cases and deaths, Republicans said Michigan needs to look at what happens on the other side.

“We believe that the business community broadly, and frankly all citizens in Michigan need to know that there’s somebody working on when the time was right to start rolling out,” Shirkey said. “By the way, nobody’s gonna be able to predict, I don’t care who they are, what the definition of the exact right time is.”

The group will be able to identify businesses and commercial activities as early as next week that can slowly and safely go back to work, Shirkey said.

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“We cannot try to achieve the zero risk,” Shirkey said. “There’s no such thing as zero risk when we get out of bed in the morning and put our feet on the floor. We are taking risks and so we’re very sensitive to the legions of workers that are on the frontlines trying their best to navigate and lead us out of this crisis that we’re in. We will in no way compromise our support both from a financial and and prayerful support for those people. But this is preparing for the next step and I think it’s appropriate for the Senate to be in a position to take that lead and make some recommendations.”

This is a bipartisan taskforce, Shirkey noted, that will give suggestions and should not be viewed as an offense to the governor.

Shirkey called the way she’s handled the virus so far in the state “successful.”

Both senators assert that the taskforce acts to investigate what is possible in the future, while Whitmer is looking at the immediate threat to the state.

“I think that business owners are anxious. They’re anxious about their businesses, but they’re concerned about their employees. What we hope to do is be able to provide a set of protocols … for running a safe business,” Horn said. “Being in work should be as safe as being at home.”

Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols is a former Michigan Advance intern. She is a Michigan State University graduate who has reported for several publications, including MLive and Michigan State University’s award-winning student paper, the State News, where she covered the many tendrils of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.