Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, announces a lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, over her use of emergency powers.
LANSING — Michigan lawmakers worked until the wee hours Wednesday morning, waiting as legislative leaders and the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer debated behind closed doors on how best to help millions of workers and small businesses struggling due to the financial strain brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Leaders from the House and Senate met off and on for more than 16 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday with representatives from Whitmer’s administration to discuss the measures. After midnight early on Wednesday, lawmakers formalized agreements to extend unemployment benefits, outline new safety measures for nursing homes and create new legal protections for health care providers and other businesses.
Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, as they talk to reporters Thursday, January 30, 2020 about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State speech. (Photo: Kathleen Gray)
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The process, especially finding common ground on bills that protect employers against lawsuits, was a struggle.
The measures come as Republicans fight Whitmer and her fellow Democrats on a number of fronts. From calls to mandate masks and ban guns at the statehouse to House Speaker Lee Chatfield questioning why the governor did not tell him or others about the specifics of a thwarted kidnapping plot, the possibility of collaboration appeared fraught heading into Tuesday’s session.
Rep. Beau LaFave, a Upper Peninsula Republican who announced in late September he’d tested positive for COVID-19, joined several of his colleagues in not wearing a mask on the House floor. West Michigan Democratic Rep. David Lagrand wore a mask and a bullet-proof vest, the bulk clearly visible through his dress shirt.
Yet the need for any legislation is significant, underscored by recent Michigan Supreme Court rulings that effectively ended Whitmer’s executive orders aimed at curtailing the pandemic and its impact.
As of this week, more than 130,000 residents have tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of residents have applied for unemployment assistance, with thousands of businesses also seeking financial aid.
At the end of the long day, the House and Senate passed a series of bills with three issues taking center stage — unemployment benefits, nursing homes and legal protections from pandemic-related lawsuits for businesses.
One measure, SB 886, extends to 26 weeks the amount of unemployment insurance available this year due to a job loss related to COVID-19. That was the same amount of time available under the governor’s executive order — this bill also clarifies that the state can’t re-examine any unemployment claim based on it being filed under an executive order now deemed invalid.
The bill also loosens the requirements a business would need to meet in order to institute a work share program, an initiative that reduces employee hours but avoids mass layoffs.
The updated measure passed unanimously in both chambers.
Another bill, SB 1094, would require state health officials to examine COVID-19 policies at nursing homes and how they have been implemented. Although a portion of the bill states no patient who tests positive for COVID-19 may be sent to a nursing home, a different portion of the legislation states a nursing home may take a patient with the virus if the home has a state-approved area within the facility for people with the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But the real fight hinged on measures that would provide a liability shield for businesses and a quirky Senate procedural move.
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A series of House-led legislation provides legal protections for businesses against lawsuit filed related to the pandemic. Republican supporters say they wanted to provide peace of mind and assistance for businesses that do the right thing and are still sued. Opponents, including Whitmer, say the legislation goes too far in the protections offered.
Republicans looked to strengthen their negotiating position with the legislative maneuver taken in the Senate. The upper chamber took action last week that essentially connected the fates of the unemployment and liability bills.
While the move was not unprecedented, it was a sign legislative leaders knew the governor wanted to support the unemployment bill and opposed the liability measures.
On Monday, Whitmer told reporters she hoped House lawmakers would undo the maneuver, known as a tie-bar.
“I think it’s really important that we’ve got unemployment protections for the hundreds of thousands of Michiganders whose benefits are in the balance as a result of the Supreme Court decision,” Whitmer said.
“These were benefits that I was able to extend, but with the court’s decision they now hang in the balance, and while the Legislature has to play an important role, I’m hopeful they’ll break that tie-bar so I can sign it in to law and we can fix this post-haste.”
The liability measures passed on largely partisan lines, but Chatfield noted in a late-night tweet lawmakers removed the procedural maneuver thanks to finding consensus.
“We have a deal on unemployment benefits and liability reform! The tie bar is no longer necessary, because we found common ground. Thank you @GovWhitmer and @SenMikeShirkey for your work and bipartisan cooperation. Great news for working families and small businesses!” Chatfield tweeted shortly after midnight Wednesday morning.
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The House also passed a resolution giving subpoena power to a special committee created to look at the state’s response to the pandemic. The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic has held several contentious meetings with administration officials. Committee leaders were particularly perturbed about a controversial contract that was awarded and then rescinded by the Whitmer administration — several people involved in the awarding of the contract have refused to attend committee meetings.
The legislative action comes in the wake of recent rulings from the Michigan Supreme Court that effectively invalidated the governor’s emergency orders issued to slow the spread of the pandemic.
The court ruled 4-3 that the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which Whitmer has been using as the major legal underpinning for her emergency orders is unconstitutional because it cedes powers that belong with the Legislature to the governor. The court also ruled that under the Emergency Management Act of 1976, Whitmer cannot maintain a state of emergency beyond 28 days without legislative approval. That approval expired at the end of April, and has not been renewed.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued several orders that largely mirror the health and safety mandates previously imposed by the governor. But the orders do not address extensions of unemployment insurance.
Whitmer must still sign the measures passed for them to become law.
Staff writer Paul Egan contributed to this report.
Contact Dave Boucher at email@example.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.
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