The conciliatory tone struck by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her State of the State address Wednesday appears to have been lost on GOP leaders, who continued to lash out at the Democratic governor during their Republican response to the speech Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) both continued their criticism of the Whitmer administration’s COVID-19 orders and argued that her actions to contain the virus outbreak have been “cruel,” “insular” and not supported by data.
House Republicans promised on Wednesday to withhold $2.1 billion in school funding unless Whitmer surrenders some of her executive powers. Senate Republicans also rejected 13 of her appointments to “send a signal” they were displeased with her actions.
When asked on Thursday what the Legislature would be willing to give up as part of a COVID relief compromise with Whitmer, Wentworth said that is “to be determined” and asked for Whitmer to “[come] to the table.”
“I don’t know why it has to be a zero-sum game. Maybe if we get together and talk, it could even be more,” Shirkey said.
Whitmer, for her part, told reporters Thursday morning that the GOP leaders “don’t show up” to meetings about the COVID-19 data modeling behind her administration’s actions. She said she hopes Republicans will stop holding a “grudge” so things can move forward.
“They like to challenge the data, but they don’t show up to the meetings where we actually share the data with them. And I think it’s really hard to have a thoughtful conversation about the work that we need to do as a state to keep people safe if we’re not operating off of facts,” Whitmer said.
Shirkey said he does not attend most data meetings because he would prefer to have “conversations” rather than “presentations.”
Despite publicly insisting that Whitmer relinquish some executive powers and put local health departments in charge in exchange for school funding, the GOP leaders argued that it is “disingenuous” to characterize it as such.
“I mean, we’re not taking away the governor’s pandemic powers, her authority to respond to a pandemic, or [the Department of Health and Human Services’] authority to respond to a pandemic. What we were trying to do is to get kids into the classroom, get kids into seats,” Wentworth said.
“… We’re putting kids and our families as a priority. It has nothing to do with legislative power, [or the] governor’s authority to respond to a pandemic. It has everything to do with getting kids into seats.”
Whitmer recently announced a goal for all schools to offer an in-person learning option by March 1 by following state health department guidelines. It is unclear how withholding school funds would help that cause.
“I can’t cede executive authority that was given to this office by the Legislature to act in circumstances like these,” Whitmer said during a media call. “I’ve never been able to understand why they think that’s something that makes sense. The chief executive has to be nimble and quick when lives on the line.
“And I know they’re not crazy about it, but that’s that is the allocation of separation of powers in this state. I’m ready and eager to continue sharing that information with them. … But to stand in the way of billions of dollars for our small businesses and our unemployed workforce, and our kids in our schools and dollars that are allocated for building up our vaccine administration, … to hold those things hostage to try to change the balance of power in Lansing is just cruel and reckless,” Whitmer continued.
On Monday, restaurants and bars will be permitted to open for indoor dining at 25% capacity after DHHS closed them in November amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
Michigan has more than 554,000 cases and more than 14,400 deaths.
Shirkey said that if it were up to him, all restaurants would be able to operate at 100% capacity with tables six feet apart. He said decisions like those should rely more on trusting Michiganders to do the right thing.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indoor restaurant seating capacity that is not reduced presents a high risk of COVID-19 spread.
Shirkey then repeated remarks he made in a media interview about Whitmer’s appearance during her speech.
“When I saw her in front of the screen, on the screen with her mask off, and I said she looks delightful, I meant it,” Shirkey said.
“To me, gestures and symbols matter. … Seeing her at a press conference, wearing a mask, I think, is a very strange symbol. And seeing her last night with a fresh face, I thought it was a fresh new look. That’s the meaning from my comment,” he said.
The GOP-led Legislature has repeatedly rebuffed Whitmer’s call to codify the mask mandate into law. Shirkey revealed this month that he had been diagnosed with COVID in December.
In her speech Wednesday, Whitmer remembered the more than 14,000 Michigan lives lost to COVID. A question submitted at the GOP leaders’ video press conference asking whether the Legislature will consider holding a day of remembrance for COVID-19 victims was not taken up.