Michigan Senate approves petition to revoke Whitmer's pandemic powers

GOP-led Senate vote likely ends the 1945 law employed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to exercise pandemic powers for the past 16 months.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The GOP-led Michigan Senate on Thursday approved the Unlock Michigan campaign on a 20-15 vote, likely ending the 1945 law employed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to exercise pandemic powers for the past 16 months.

Democrats and Republicans exchanged heated remarks over COVID-19 policy.

“This petition will hamstring our leaders of both parties — from preventing or slowing the spread of a deadly disease. This is about our ability to react to other pandemics and disasters in the future,” Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said pre-vote.

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, pushed back, noting the state holds the emergency powers act of 1976 that grants broad authority to the executive branch in genuine emergencies and limits emergency declarations to 28 days without the Legislature’s approval.

“That balances the immediate need risk of the issue in front of us with the important protections of the separation of powers for the people in our state,” Barrett said.

Democrats contended Whitmer single-handedly saved thousands of lives through her COVID-19 policies, which were the strictest and enacted the longest in the Midwest, while the GOP only criticized the first-term Democrat battling a global pandemic.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, said the repeal would slow the state's disaster response time since the governor would have to work with the legislature.

"I can’t in good conscience put the lives of Michiganders at risk," McMorrow said.

The GOP said the petition is the voice of the people. Unlock Michigan submitted at least 460,000 valid signatures when they only needed about 340,000.

"This initiative represents a people’s veto of this governor and the unlimited power she’s tried to claim during this pandemic," Barrett argued in a speech on the Senate floor.

The Unlock Michigan petition, filed in October 2020, dates back to the early COVID-19 pandemic and is veto-proof.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, criticized Whitmer for "arbitrary rules", deeming alcohol, lottery tickets, and marijuana as “essential” during lockdowns while forcing out of work entire professions, including barbers and landscapers. Those far-reaching orders included threatening criminal charges for operating a motorboat, visiting a secondary home, and banning stores larger than 50,000 square feet from selling gardening supplies.

On Oct. 2, 2020, The Michigan Supreme Court tossed many of Whitmer's executive orders. Still, it split 4-3 on whether the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act “is an unlawful delegation of legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.”

After the ruling, Whitmer harnessed pandemic powers through her state health department to patch together a statewide mask mandate and gathering limits.

On Tuesday, the Board of State Canvassers certified the Unlock Michigan petition. The petition moves to the House, where it’s expected to be approved soon.