(The Center Square) –The Michigan Senate on Thursday night approved a bill 22-16 along party lines that aims to limit the state health department's epidemic order power.
SB 1253, if signed into law, would amend the Public Health Code so Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon’s epidemic orders would be only valid for up to 28 days unless both houses of the Legislature approves Gordon’ extension request.
The state health department has issued epidemic orders authorized by a 1978 law that can prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose.
On Monday, Gordon enacted an epidemic order to extend a shutdown of dine-in at restaurants and in-person instruction at high schools through Dec. 20.
The bill would be retroactive to an epidemic order beginning Nov. 15.
Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton Township, said Gordon is "unaccountable" to constituents and shouldn't be able to issue, in perpetuity, "business-killing orders" that “disrupt lives and threaten livelihoods.”
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said Whitmer’s administrations orders “neuter[ed] the Legislature's power over its own constituents," and added: "Here's our chance to re-assert some sort of opportunity for the real democratic process to work here."
Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, called the bill “absurd.”
“We owe the people of the state of Michigan better than this bill, which does little more than bog down a process where swift, intelligent actions grounded in science is warranted.”
Whitmer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but she’d likely veto the bill.
The first-term Democrat has previously said any attempts to revoke her power during COVID-19 “is irresponsible, dangerous, and foolish.”
Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, argued Republicans don’t have a plan to combat COVID-19.
For the last nine months, lawmakers have sparred on striking a balance between protecting public health and the minimizing the collateral damage caused by epidemic orders shutting down businesses through no fault of their own.
Some businesses have been forced to shut down longer than they’ve been allowed to open in 2020, and the hospitality industry has been hit especially hard, with at least 2,000 restaurants closed so far with projections up to 6,000 under continued restrictions.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) supports the bill.
“The Michigan Supreme Court has made it clear with their recent decision concerning the Governor’s abuse of the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945, that the balance of power in governance of our state is one of the hallmarks of our system of representative government and must be respected,” NFIB State Director Charlie Owens said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, the governor has continued to usurp the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches by continuing to issue orders through state agencies under her direct control.”
Owens argued Senate Bill 1253 would restore a proper balance between the executive office and the Legislature.
“No state agency should have the authority to shut down entire segments of the state’s economy without legislative oversight and approval,” Owens said.
Whitmer initially used a 1945 law to issue unilateral statewide orders until the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional on Oct. 2.
So Whitmer turned to her administration’s backup power that grants the state health department the authority to limit gatherings, restrict businesses, and issue a mask mandate.
COVID-19 has been a primary or contributing factor in 10,395 Michigan deaths since March.