Legislature yanks Whitmer’s emergency powers used during pandemic — and governor can’t veto

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Whitmer office photo

As expected, the GOP-led Michigan House voted Wednesday mostly along party lines to permanently topple a 76-year-old state law that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used during the first months of COVID-19.

The vote came down to 60 members in favor of repealing the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA), with 48 opposed and two not voting. Four Democrats — state Reps. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette), Tim Sneller (D-Burton), Richard Steenland (D-Roseville) and Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) — voted with Republicans in favor of the Unlock Michigan petition.

The state Senate had wasted no time Thursday giving the green light to the measure before sending it to the House. Since initiative petitions only require the one-time approval of both legislative chambers, the EPGA has been overturned.

Having received the full approval of the GOP-led Legislature, the petition will not go before voters. Whitmer does not have veto power over the measure.

Republican lawmakers began eyeing options to strip Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of her emergency powers in spring 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitmer had leaned on both the EPGA and the 1976 Emergency Management Act (EMA) to impose social and business restrictions in order to control the rampant spread of the virus, which Republicans vocally opposed, citing executive overreach.

The GOP-led Legislature authorized a lawsuit against Whitmer in May as the parties traded barbs back and forth over who should have control over pandemic actions. The Legislature ultimately was successful, with a GOP-appointed majority on the Michigan Supreme Court ruling in October that the EPGA was unconstitutional.

Michigan Senate quickly OKs anti-Whitmer petition

Out of that contention also came a right-wing petition called Unlock Michigan that set its sights on permanently repealing the EPGA. Even after the Supreme Court decision — that did hold that Whitmer had interpreted the law correctly as it was written — the Unlock Michigan campaign still forged ahead to “keep it dead.”

That effort was not without turbulence. Following allegations of unethical signature-collecting practices, Attorney General Dana Nessel opened an investigation into the campaign. Although the investigation did not ultimately turn up any evidence of criminal behavior, it did feed into the hesitance of the Board of State Canvassers’ Democratic members to rubber stamp the petition.

After the board deadlocked, Unlock Michigan sought an order from the Michigan Supreme Court that ultimately compelled members to approve it on July 13.

State Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.) said that after months of delay, Wednesday’s vote presented an opportunity to “reclaim” the Legislature’s proper governmental powers and a chance for residents to be treated as “part of the solution to every problem, rather than being treated as though they are the problems.”

The EPGA was originally passed by the Legislature in 1945.

State Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) characterized Whitmer’s use of the EPGA as “one branch stonewalling the co-equal branch.”

State board OKs anti-Whitmer petition, heads to GOP-led Legislature

“I will not be voting ‘yes’ today; I will be voting ‘hell yes,’” O’Malley said before the vote.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) said in a statement that “far too much” of the hardship faced by families during COVID-19 “came from their own government leaders.”

“Hundreds of thousands of our families, friends and neighbors changed Michigan forever when they decided they had enough and stood up to make a difference. … They deserve a state government that is willing to do the same. They’ve earned that much. That’s why we had their back today and put this petition into law,” Wentworth said.

Cambensy, one of four Democrats who voted with GOP lawmakers to approve the Unlock Michigan petition, said she believes it would be “inappropriate” to disrespect the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of the EPGA.

But other Democrats like state Reps. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills), Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) and Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) spoke out against the measure for being a danger to public health and boxing out the majority of Michigan voters.

Steckloff said that since 1963, nearly 40% of the successful citizen-led petition drives have been decided by the Legislature rather than by voters.

“I’m tired of continuing to lie to people that this is a vote of the people,” Steckloff said.

The Michigan Supreme Court is in the spotlight for striking down Whitmer’s emergency powers. The balance of power will be decided Nov. 3.

Manoogian spoke along similar lines, pointing out that the 460,000 signatures on the Unlock Michigan petition account for just a fraction of Michigan’s overall voter population of nearly 10 million.

State House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) did not mince words about the petition while speaking to reporters.

“Today was complete political theater,” Lasinski said. She chided Republican lawmakers for focusing on stripping Whitmer’s powers during the pandemic rather than putting forth legislation to help Michiganders.

“If this is a proposal that [Republicans] felt had the support of the people of Michigan, then put it on the ballot and let’s have the people of Michigan voice their support or disapproval of the initiative,” Lasinski said.

“Nothing about this effort is OK or is democratic. … We are seeing over and over efforts to go around and find any loophole possible, again, for moneyed folks to suppress the vote and to find other ways to get their agenda across the line,” Lasinski continued, saying that well-funded petition drives like Unlock Michigan’s attempt to “run the government through a small minority.”

The Committee to Protect Health Care also chimed in on the petition, slamming GOP lawmakers for making it harder to effectively mitigate future public health emergencies.

“By taking away an essential tool in Michigan’s public health toolbox, Republican lawmakers are putting Michigan lives at risk today and in the future,” said Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a family physician in Lansing and Michigan state lead for the committee. 

“The new surge in COVID-19 cases only underscores that we’re not out of the woods of our current pandemic, and when new pandemics come along, it will be even more difficult for our executive branch to take the actions necessary to save lives.

“I’m still grateful for the actions Governor Whitmer took in the early days of this pandemic to save lives and flatten the curve, and I’m even more disappointed now in Republican lawmakers whose only focus it seems is to divide people and make the governor’s job harder,” Bhatti said.

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Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).