Michigan lawmakers block Whitmer order in rare move

FILE- In a Dec. 12, 2012 photo, the statue of Gov. Austin Blair, the war governor (1861- 1864), is silhouetted against the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Republican lawmakers on Thursday blocked Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s bid to restructure the state environmental agency — the first time the full Legislature has rejected a gubernatorial executive order since 1977.

The GOP-led Senate voted 22-16 against the order along party lines, criticizing her attempt to abolish new rule-making and permitting panels, and to establish an “environmental justice” office without defining what the term means. The Republican-controlled House voted down the order last week.

“It’s disappointing to see the party of limited government vote for more government bureaucracy, but the governor remains undeterred,” said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. “She is committed to reorganizing this department so we clean up our drinking water and protect public health.”

Whitmer is awaiting a legal opinion from Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel on whether the commissions created last year violate federal environmental law. One panel oversees environmental rule-making — though the governor ultimately has the final say — while another can approve, modify or reverse permit decisions that have been challenged by companies or other parties. She has criticized the commissions as a nonessential layer of bureaucracy that “keeps us from actually cleaning up drinking water.”

GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, of Clarklake, said Whitmer has a prerogative to reorganize the Department of Environmental Quality. But, he said, eliminating the commissions “was a step too far” because they were established under 2018 laws that were “rightfully passed and we think were important for the protections of transparency, accountability and giving citizens access for redress. I invite my governor to send us another EO with her recommendations on how to reorganize” the agency.

He later issued a statement noting that Whitmer as a legislator co-sponsored a bill that would have created a commission with oversight powers of the department. He said she “saw the value in creating oversight of bureaucracy.”

Democrats slammed the Senate’s vote to protect what one lawmaker called “polluter panels.”

The committees have the power to “veto actions that our professional scientists and our governor’s appointee have taken to discharge her responsibilities under the law and under our constitution,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor. “I think that’s fundamentally wrong. I think it’s a conflict of interest.”

Republican Sen. Ed McBroom of Vulcan said he had heard from citizens that the department is “out of control,” issuing arbitrary fines to loggers and others and in one case not letting a farmer plow a field “that’s been plowed for 100 years.” Irwin countered that most decisions by environmental regulators “aren’t about snowmobiling sheds and logging roads. Mostly it’s about industrial pollution — big companies that are putting toxic, cancer-causing chemicals into our air and water.”

Whitmer is empowered by the state constitution to change the organization of the executive branch. But the constitution also lets lawmakers turn down such an order if they do so within 60 days of it being issued.

Whitmer made environmental protection and water cleanup a campaign priority following Flint’s crisis and the discovery of chemical compounds known as PFAS in at least 40 locations across the state. Other parts of her order, such as renaming the department and creating a new public advocacy office to investigate complaints about water quality, were not opposed by Republicans. The order would also have created a new office on climate policy to seek ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and promote renewable energy while helping Michigan adjust to a warmer world.

The last time both legislative chambers rejected an executive order was in 1977, but legislators have effectively reshaped an order more recently.

In 2005 — another period of divided government — Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm rescinded her order to create a new economic development department after the Senate rejected it and the House was poised to do the same. She submitted a new one that addressed the GOP-led Legislature’s concerns.

That same year, a Republican-controlled Senate panel rejected a Granholm order to make budget cuts. Unlike with orders to reorganize the government, which can be blocked by votes in the full House and Senate, budget-cutting orders go before legislative appropriations committees.

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