LANSING — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Thursday voted to repeal an emergency powers law that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to issue public health orders early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the repeal, which the House could make official with a vote as soon as next week, will have no discernible effect on Michigan residents because the law was already invalidated last year by the state Supreme Court.
Supporters of the Unlock Michigan initiative contend it is important to wipe the law off the books for good to ensure future courts don’t rule differently, and Thursday’s vote functioned as another partisan referendum on Whitmer’s unilateral response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have been operating under a dictatorship, in essence, without any input from the Legislature,” Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said in a fiery floor speech.
Whitmer had used the law to set a host of restrictions on businesses, health care facilities and gatherings early in the pandemic that has killed more than 21,000 people in Michigan since 2020. Republicans opposed many of the measures.
Senate Democrats opposed the repeal in a party-line vote. They argue it is foolish to try limit powers for Whitmer — or any future governor — because emergencies require swift action that the Legislature is not well suited to provide as a proudly “deliberative body”
Residents would be “at risk if the executive of our state does not have the ability to act quickly,” said Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak.
What powers does Whitmer still have?
While Whitmer lifted all remaining pandemic orders last month, two other laws remain in effect that would allow her and future governors to respond to new variants or unrelated public health crises.
First, the public health code gives the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services authority to issue epidemic orders.
That’s what Whitmer appointees have done since October when the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated the law now set for repeal.
Unlock Michigan organizers are preparing a second petition drive to try to limit those epidemic orders to 28 days, unless extended by the Legislature, but they have not yet started to collect signatures for that effort.
Second, another law remains on the books allowing Whitmer to declare a state of emergency for up to 28 days, unless extended by the Legislature.
An extension is not given: The Republican-led Legislature last year refused to extend Whitmer’s initial COVID-19 emergency declaration, rejecting her request on the same day armed protesters rallied against the governor at the Michigan Capitol.
Still, with two laws on the books that still give Whitmer and her administration wide berth to issue emergency orders, Thursday’s vote was largely symbolic.
“In some ways, this was a waste of time, a waste of energy and a waste of our air,” said Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, who lamented the vote as “a continued attack” on Whitmer.
Why can’t Whitmer veto?
The measure, approved in a 20-15 vote, now heads to the GOP-led House for expected approval as soon as next week.
Whitmer cannot veto the proposal because it was initiated by a petition drive.
While questionable circulator tactics prompted a state investigation, organizers were able to collect valid signatures from more than 460,000 Michigan voters to advance the measure.
“This is a terrific affirmation of what citizens can do when they see their government out of control,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who supported the initiative and used a nonprofit to pump money from undisclosed donors into the petition drive.
Michigan has a rare constitutional provision allowing the Legislature to adopt initiatives and make them law without the governor’s signature or a statewide vote, which Democrats argued would be a better reflection of voters’ preferences.
The 460,00 voters who signed the petition represent about 11 percent of the 4.2 million voters who participated in the 2018 gubernatorial election, which Whitmer won with nearly 2.3 million votes.