While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the details of her new “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order extension at a press conference Friday, state lawmakers met in Lansing to spar over and eventually pass controversial GOP-led legislation aimed at limiting her powers.
The unusual Friday session was called Thursday morning by Republican leadership. On the docket for the Legislature: Creating a bicameral oversight committee to investigate the state government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and voting on two Senate bills that would strip Whitmer of certain emergency powers.
Hours of session ensued, peppered with heated remarks from legislators on both sides.
The resolution from House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) creating the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic sailed through the state House with a voice vote. After two Democratic amendments to the resolution were proposed in the state Senate, then quickly shot down, the joint concurrent resolution passed in that chamber, as well.
Between intense and at times acerbic speeches from state senators, the Republican-introduced Senate bills to curtail Whitmer’s authority also passed along party lines. Whitmer has already pledged to veto them.
The majority of lawmakers were in attendance in both chambers. Only state Sen. Betty Jean Alexander (D-Detroit) was absent from the Senate, while 15 lawmakers were absent from the 109-member state House. All 15 are Democrats; most hail from the Detroit area, a noted COVID-19 hotspot.
GOP-led oversight committee
Legislators didn’t take long to approve a committee to investigate the state government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 20 passed both chambers just two hours after being introduced by Chatfield.
The committee will have subpoena power over documents and other records from state officials. GOP lawmakers under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder had previously refused to use this oversight power in response to the Flint water crisis fallout, which led to the state spending $8.5 million to defend Snyder in court.
The committee is composed of six Republicans and four Democrats. Two Republicans, state Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) and state Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), were named chair and vice chair, respectively, by Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).
Members of the committee include: state Reps. Julie Calley (R-Portland), Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw) and Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann); and state Sens. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing), Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) and Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City).
A release from Chatfield notes that a schedule for future meetings and action by the committee is pending, and will be decided by the chair and members.
“The Legislature is the voice of the people, and the people of this state have very serious questions and concerns about how this pandemic is being handled by state officials,” Chatfield wrote. “… The state’s response must be transparent, and we all have to work together to hold state government to higher standards for its actions and choices.”
Just before the vote, state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Hertel introduced amendments to the resolution that were subsequently rejected along party lines.
Irwin’s amendment would have equalized the number of Democrats and Republicans on the committee, which he said would have made it a truly bipartisan committee. Hertel’s would have expanded the scope of the committee’s investigation into the federal government’s response to COVID-19.
Both lawmakers contended that the adoption of their amendments would prove a non-political motivation to the committee’s creation.
“Help me prove that this is not a political process,” Hertel asked GOP members before the vote.
Chatfield’s resolution passed without either amendment along party lines, 22-15.
Set of ill-fated Senate bills
It is unlikely that the state Legislature would be able to override those vetoes, as Republican members make up less than the two-thirds needed for an override.
SB 857 would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act — one of two state laws used by Whitmer as her legal basis for emergency actions during the COVID-19 crisis. The Emergency Powers Act specifically provides governors with the authority to act without legislative approval, which has been a point of great contention among Republican legislators.
“Stand with me in defense of the Constitution,” Barrett urged his colleagues before the vote, arguing that lawmakers should be “gravely concerned” about a governor having the power to act without a check from the state Legislature.
SB 878 would modify the duration of the governor’s executive orders, proclamations and directives.
State Sens. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) argued along similar lines to Barrett. McBroom said the issue is “much more complex” than just rebuking the governor, while Horn accused Democrats of ignoring their oaths of office by yielding their power to Whitmer and likened the governor to a monarch.
But seven Democratic lawmakers took the floor in dissent, some more than once, sharing personal stories about loved ones lost to COVID-19 while excoriating their Republican colleagues over what they described as nothing more than political fanfare.
Hollier wore a homemade knitted mask emblazoned with the number 2,977 — the number of Michiganders dead from COVID-19 as of Thursday. He said that while he knows “it’s hard to yield power to someone you disagree with,” Whitmer is doing the right thing and should have more power and flexibility to respond to the crisis.
“If you want me here on this Senate floor, we ought to at least be doing something productive,” said state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), before state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) called the session “wildly irresponsible.”
“You’re putting politics above everything else,” Hertel scolded Republicans. During his second stand at the podium, Hertel raised his voice at Barrett to call him out on a “damn lie” suggesting that Whitmer banned chemotherapy under her Stay Home, Stay Safe order.
In a statement after session, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) accused Republicans of “stunts and political games” while attempting to “take away [Whitmer’s] ability to fight back against the virus and save lives.”
As of Friday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports that the state has more than 36,600 known cases of COVID-19 and 3,000 deaths.