Whitmer: ‘This is not a political problem. This is a public health crisis.’

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

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday declared she won’t engage in political fights over public health, after talks with GOP leaders to extend her emergency declaration over COVID-19 went south and led to sharp words from the Republican Senate majority leader.

Whitmer was asked by reporters about her talks with GOP leaders at Wednesday’s COVID-19 update.

Republicans are “acting as though we are in the midst of a political problem,” Whitmer said. “This is not a political problem that we have. This is a public health crisis.”

Noting that Michigan has already lost over 3,700 residents to COVID-19, Whitmer said: “I am completely focused on saving lives. I’m not going to engage in political negotiations with anybody. We don’t have time for politics and games when people’s lives are on the line. I’m going to make decisions not based on negotiation, but based on facts and science and data and risk.”

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She added that Michigan “remain[s] in a state of emergency until the order is rescinded. And I do not have any intention of rescinding that right now.” 

Whitmer also noted that she is using her emergency powers the way they were intended to be used, and does not “enjoy” using those levers of the office, but feels them necessary at this time of crisis. 

The governor maintains that the Legislature’s approval is not needed to extend the emergency. Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order is in place until May 15. A Court of Claims judge on Wednesday rejected a motion filed by residents to suspend the order.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey | Nick Manes

While the Michigan House and Senate remained in various states of recess Wednesday with little action, emails obtained by the Advance revealed ongoing, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Whitmer’s office for an agreement on her requested emergency extensions.

Shirkey Chief of Staff Jeremy Hendges writes in an email Wednesday morning to Whitmer staffers that the two parties should “continue conversations on the broader issues,” before outlining Shirkey’s proposal for an agreement — which Whitmer rejects in a subsequent email hours later.

Shirkey’s proposed deal offered two, one-week extensions of Whitmer’s state of emergency declaration, which Whitmer has asked the state Legislature to extend before it expires Thursday. In exchange, the Republican wants the Legislature to have a say in emergency actions, not just the governor. Last week, the Senate passed legislation capping her emergency powers, even though Whitmer can veto the bills.

Shirkey asks for a public agreement from Whitmer that “all future stay-at-home-type orders (and only those) be enacted through bipartisan legislation and the democratic process rather than executive order.”

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In response, a Whitmer spokesperson shared this reply from the governor:

“While I welcome partnership, information sharing and robust discussion with the legislature, I cannot abrogate my duty to act in an emergency to protect the lives of Michiganders. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has already killed 3,670 people and COVID 19 numbers continue to climb in parts of our state.

“Michigan remains in a state of emergency regardless of the actions you decide to take or not take,” Whitmer concludes, seeming to allude to her office’s stance that she has the legal authority to continue her emergency orders without the state Legislature’s approval. This view is also shared by many Michigan legal experts.

A Shirkey spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But his spokesperson told Bridge that the Senate majority leader “is extremely disappointed that he heard about the Governor’s rejection based on her leaking an email to the press,” and “if there was any interest in his caucus working with the Governor, it has evaporated.”

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Shirkey also told MIRS in an interview that Whitmer “has made it clear for a number of weeks now that she’s very comfortable being a dictator.” He went on to describe Whitmer’s rejection of his proposal as a “double middle finger.”

It is still unclear what specific proposals of his own, if any, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) made to Whitmer’s office in exchange for the emergency extension.

Spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said in an email to the Advance Wednesday evening that Chatfield “was willing to discuss it with her and try to find a middle ground that kept a strong response to the pandemic and helped people who have been hurt unintentionally by the imperfect one-size-fits-all approach.”