Michigan Senate targets virus restrictions; OKs jobless, water bills

Posted at 9:00 AM, Dec 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-11 09:00:17-05

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Senate Republicans voted to limit the length of coronavirus restrictions issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, unless they were extended by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The bill, which would be vetoed if it reached the Democratic governor’s desk, cleared the chamber on a party-line 22-16 vote late Thursday.

Senators did find common ground, though, on other pandemic-related measures — voting unanimously to keep intact unemployment changes for an additional three months and to provide $250 million to continue funding a maximum 26 weeks of benefits in a year for the jobless instead of 20 weeks. Water shutoffs would be prohibited statewide under a bill that passed 30-8.

The voting set the stage for final House action next week before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Since the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law that was the basis for Whitmer’s unilateral orders to curb COVID-19, she has instead used the state health department’s epidemic powers to require masks and limit gatherings. Most recently, amid a spike in infections, Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon has prohibited in-person instruction at high schools and colleges, barred indoor restaurant dining and closed various entertainment venues, through at least Dec. 20.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Lana Theis would require legislative approval to extend such orders beyond 28 days, similarly to a provision in a 1976 law that applies to a governor’s emergency declarations. She said the Supreme Court majority was clear that Whitmer should work with legislators to combat the virus.

“Unelected and accountable DHHS bureaucrats should not, in perpetuity, be able to issue freedom-restricting and business-killing emergency orders that disrupt lives and threaten livelihoods,” said Theis, a Republican from Brighton.

Democrats tried to amend the bill to add a face covering mandate to law but were blocked by GOP senators.

“For us to stymie and prohibit the primary department also responsible for promoting and protecting public health, from not only a pandemic but clearly from us and the legislative majority’s lackadaisical attitude to a pandemic that is ever present and continues to rage on, it’s not just irresponsible. It’s absurd,” said Sen. Erika Geiss of Taylor.

After the high court’s decision in October invalidating the governor’s executive orders, the Legislature and Whitmer enacted laws to continue less controversial measures related to unemployment, virtual government meetings and other issues. But they will expire later this month unless lawmakers act.

Bills approved in recent days would extend, through March, dispensing flexibility for pharmacies, for instance, and the validity of driver’s licenses that have expired since last March.

The Senate’s vote to again freeze water shutoffs was welcomed by supporters. The governor had done so in an order in the spring until it was upended by the court ruling more than two months ago.

The bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Stephanie Chang of Detroit, said more than 317,000 Michigan households have been behind on their water bills during the virus outbreak. Addressing shutoffs, particularly in a pandemic, “is a public health issue, an economic security issue and a moral issue,” she said.

The Senate also passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would let certain businesses hammered by the pandemic — like restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues — defer their summer property tax payments without facing penalties or interest. Whitmer vetoed a similar measure in July. Under the latest bill, the state would pay local governments an amount equal to the waived interest and penalties if the Legislature set aside funding.

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