October 25, 2020

Unlocking Trouble

By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 19, 2020

Unlock Michigan is likely to unlock trouble. It's awash with potential for unintended consequences. 

The idea is that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has far exceeded what should be her authority, using a 1945 emergency powers law to unilaterally make decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Several attempts to stop the governor through the courts having failed, a petition drive was started to force a referendum that would repeal the 1945 statute. The governor would still have some emergency powers under a 1976 law but would need the approval of the legislature after 28 days. 

It appears the referendum drive will secure enough signatures to force a vote. But if the Republican-controlled legislature, anxious to find a way to hamstring Whitmer, passes the law themselves, the referendum would be moot, no public vote would be held, the law would not require the governor's signature nor could she veto it.  

A visit to Unlock Michigan's web site, full of hyperbolic nonsense, tells the story. Whitmer's executive orders – and she's closing in on 200 – are unconstitutional, give her dictatorial powers, will destroy Michigan's economy, offends our liberties, blah, blah, blah. We've heard all this for months. What we still haven't heard is what the anti-Whitmer faction would suggest as an alternative.

And they have short memories.

Less than six months ago, Michigan was one of the coronavirus epicenters. Washington state got it started, then New York and then here. When Whitmer essentially shut down the state on March 16, both cases and fatalities were soaring, especially in southeastern Michigan. 

Whitmer could have ignored the medical community and the infectious disease experts and done nothing. Plenty of states did that much to the applause of their freedom-loving citizenry. South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia all kept going. Governors in Florida and Arizona issued their own executive orders barring local municipalities from taking any action of their own, like requiring masks. 

How did that work out for those states?  All of them ended up with soaring surges and fatalities which could have been prevented. Michigan, which at one point had the third worst infection and fatality rate, now has a per capita infection rate lower than that of 33 other states. 

One could argue Gov. Whitmer's orders, based on advice from actual medical experts rather than partisan politicians, have proven to be difficult, sometimes confusing, almost always annoying and mostly right. None of us is especially enjoying this but the numbers are on the governor's side.

Legislatures, by their design and nature, rarely make quick decisions. They are supposed to be deliberative bodies, not a place for rapid responses. In times of real crisis, they cannot, or should not, move with the speed required so authority to do that has been given to governors during a declared state of emergency.

Unlock Michigan would put that authority back into the hands of our legislature after 28 days. And then what? A nice, long, thoughtful debate? A month or so of partisan squabbling? 

This is, after all, the same legislature that just got around to producing a budget weeks after public schools had been begging for it. It's the same legislature a judge told months ago to fix what he described as oppressive amendments, vague rules and the unconstitutionality of Michigan's sex offender registry to no avail. The 44,000 people on that list have been relieved of their responsibility to report their whereabouts until the changes have been made. And then there was the Flint water catastrophe.

(To be fair, the GOP leadership did act quickly in stripping Rep. Larry Inman of his committee assignments, office, and staff based on a phone call he made with a union representative for which he was subsequently indicted. But Inman has not been, and is not likely to be, convicted of anything.)

If successful, Unlock Michigan will essentially give the governor 28 days of emergency powers and then the crack legislature will spring into action to authorize another 28 days. Or crawl into ponderous pontificating unlikely to bear any resemblance to action.

It's not as if this pandemic will be our only emergency. Another dam break, a natural flood, wildfire, and tornadoes are all possibilities as is another pandemic. All of them could require swift responses, the ability to change directions quickly and extend beyond 28 days. Involving the glacially moving legislature won't help resolve whatever problem we're facing. 

One does wonder if those now advocating restraints on Whitmer will feel the same should there come a time when a Republican governor is bedeviled by a Democratic legislature. Those now crying the loudest about unconstitutional authority and dictatorial powers will likely be muted then, replaced by calls to unlock the governor. 

Unlocking Michigan will unlock more trouble than it's worth.   

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