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Michigan lawmakers spar over emergency length, need to meet

In this photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 2, 2020. The governor ordered that students in the state will not return to K-12 school buildings the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead will learn remotely. All public and private schools are more than halfway through a four-week shutdown ordered by Whitmer to combat the outbreak. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)

By DAVID EGGERT

Associated Press

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers plan to convene for the first time in weeks to lengthen Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration amid the coronavirus pandemic but are at odds over the extension and whether the session is even necessary.

The Republican-led Legislature is scheduled to meet Tuesday, three weeks after last voting. Since then, one legislator has died from a suspected COVID-19 infection and another has tested positive, causing uneasiness over congregating in the Capitol.

Stretching Whitmer’s emergency is important because the original declaration — set to expire Tuesday after 28 days — is the basis for nearly 30 subsequent executive orders, including those telling people to stay home and closing schools and businesses.

Whitmer wants a 70-day extension, into mid-June. GOP leaders favor a 23-day extension, through April.

Complicating the issue is that Whitmer last week rescinded her emergency declaration and replaced it with one that also includes an initial disaster declaration. Democrats said the disaster designation means the 28-day clock resets and there is no reason to meet until late April, especially when the virus outbreak is not subsiding.

Michigan had more than 15,700 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Sunday with 617 deaths.

“For us to come in a week after we lost a rep, when the death count keeps climbing, the number of cases is really climbing … it’s just not the time to come in to the Legislature unless it’s absolutely necessary. It is not absolutely necessary,” House Democratic Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills said during an interview.

Republicans countered that under Democrats’ interpretation, a governor could revise and reissue declarations in perpetuity, rendering meaningless a 1976 law that requires legislative authorization to lengthen emergencies and disasters.

“The governor’s declaration will expire on April 7th, and it is our responsibility to consider an extension,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering wrote to Greig on Saturday after she had sent him a letter outlining her concerns. “Doing so until May 1st will allow the governor to continue her important work while still giving local residents hope that they will have a real plan presented to them sooner than the end of June.”

Another complexity is that a 1945 law, also cited in Whitmer’s declarations and orders, gives a governor broad powers to unilaterally declare an emergency and when it has ended — without any legislative oversight.

Whitmer said that she had implored legislators not to gather this week because her new declarations made it unnecessary. She later clarified that they should approve a 70-day extension, noting the Legislature had extended a state of emergency for longer over Flint’s water crisis in 2016 and a Detroit-area sinkhole in 2017. The one in Flint lasted more than seven months.

“People are dying in our state. It’s important that we continue to have the protections for our health care workers, and that all depends on extending this emergency,” Whitmer said. “I ask that the Legislature think very seriously about embracing this 70-day extension. It doesn’t mean it’s embracing a 70-day extension for every other order that I’ve issued.”

GOP lawmakers instead support revisiting the length of the declaration every few weeks.

“We know there have been other states of emergency of a similar time span requested and granted — the difference being that the circumstances of those emergencies were vastly different than what we’re dealing with in this situation where we’ve had a very significant restrictions of people’s movements and freedoms in a way,” said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake. “He thinks we can come to some middle ground in terms of the extension, and that doesn’t preclude it from being extended again if it were necessary at some point.”