LANSING – By midday Thursday Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was faced with a challenge not placed before an occupant of the governor’s office in more than a generation: full rejection of an executive order.
The Senate’s 22-16 party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate on HCR 1, rejecting the governor’s proposed restructuring of the Department of Environmental Quality and the elimination of three oversight panels, puts the ball back in the governor’s court for the next move on a top priority, that being the environment. As the initial backlash from the Legislature, with both chambers controlled by Republicans, emerged last week, Ms. Whitmer vowed to increase state environmental protections one way or another.
Ms. Whitmer last week sent a letter to Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel requesting an opinion about whether two of the three panels she has sought to abolish, the Environmental Rules Review Committee and the Environmental Permit Review Commission, violate federal law.
Whether Ms. Whitmer would issue an amended executive order was not immediately clear Thursday.
“Today, Senate Republicans, with a party-line vote, voted against an executive order that will clean up Michigan’s drinking water, mitigate the harmful impacts of PFAS, create new public advocates for clean drinking water and environmental justice and finally address climate change,” Whitmer Press Secretary Tiffany Brown said in a statement in response to questions about what the governor will do next and whether the Senate’s action has jeopardized the ability for the governor and Legislature to work together. “It’s disappointing to see the party of limited government vote for more government bureaucracy, but the governor remains undeterred. She is committed to reorganizing this department so we clean up our drinking water and protect public health. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with the Legislature to get this done, because Michiganders can’t afford to wait for clean drinking water.”
Thursday’s vote to completely reject Ms. Whitmer’s executive order was the first such move to clear the Legislature since 1977.
The move by the Legislature stalls, for now, Ms. Whitmer’s plan to launch a major shakeup of the DEQ and to eliminate three oversight panels the governor, and Democrats, believe gives big businesses and major polluters sway over environmental permitting decisions. Republicans have called the governor’s move a significant overstep into legislative intent and have said the panels should be given time to work.
Thursday’s vote came about two hours after the Senate Oversight Committee met and reported the resolution, also along party lines.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said the Republicans are strongly in favor of residents having an avenue to address grievances with the DEQ.
He said there have been numerous conversations with the governor since the fight over the order began last week and hopes they continue. Mr. Shirkey said most of the rest of what was contained in it was fine with lawmakers, but Republicans will not back down on the panels, enacted last year.
“I invite our governor to send us another executive order,” Mr. Shirkey said.
Mr. Shirkey added he would be open to a conversation on the makeup of the panels.
Prior to Thursday’s floor vote, Democrats verbally thrashed the resolution, with several members calling a vote for HCR 1 a vote for corporate polluters, dirty drinking water and potential health problems for residents, young and old.
“A vote to reject this order is a love letter to corporate polluters. It is a ‘Dear John’ letter to your constituents,” Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.(D-East Lansing) said.
Mr. Hertel rattled off environmental threats that occurred in recent years under total Republican control of the state including the Flint water crisis along with the emerging threat to drinking water posed by polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
“Clean, beautiful Michigan is who we are. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the news,” Mr. Hertel said.
Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said he understood the anecdotes of complaints by individual residents during two days of Senate Oversight Committee testimony about potentially arbitrary fines or permitting issues, particularly in the Upper Peninsula.
“Mostly it’s about industrial pollution,” Mr. Irwin said of the lion’s share of DEQ permitting activity. “The people of Michigan are counting on us.”
He called a vote for the resolution a vote for corporate polluters, saying it has been a legislative failure for years to rein in industry polluting the air and water that all residents have a right to enjoy as being clean and safe.
Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) sharply contested the accusations of siding with industry, saying those favoring the resolution are in support of giving their constituents an avenue to petition their government.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous and repugnant to good common decency,” Mr. McBroom said of Democrats’ accusations. “Let’s give each other some grace, let’s give each other some latitude to understand perspectives.”
Mr. McBroom further questioned the order, noting oversight of DEQ processes was the purpose of the three panels: “Who is watching the watcher?”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said the Senate “just voted to (give) polluters a free pass.”
Mr. Ananich said it is not the job of a panel containing members from regulated industries to make decisions that a department should be making.
Earlier Thursday the Senate Oversight Committee voted 4-1, also along party lines, to report HCR 1. It also sent a letter reporting the findings of two days of testimony to the Government Operations Committee, following set procedure since Government Operations typically handles executive orders.
Mr. McBroom, chair of the Senate Oversight Committee, said the focus of the panels is not to protect big polluters but to help individual residents. He referred to the examples provided in recent testimony about denied permits and others being put at financial risk over what people testified as being arbitrary fines.
“These have not even had a chance yet,” Mr. McBroom said of the panels. “We believe in the laws that were passed last term.”
Mr. McBroom also spoke of the concept of environmental justice, a term without a definition in state law used multiple times by Ms. Whitmer in her executive order.
“Let’s establish a definition,” Mr. McBroom told reporters, calling it a dangerous road to go down having an agency or department subjectively use a term that has not been clearly defined. “I’m hesitant to let a regulating agency loose.”
Mr. Irwin told reporters he is unsure of the endgame between Ms. Whitmer and the Legislature.
“The governor should send another one,” Mr. Irwin said of an executive order.
Mr. Irwin added he is concerned, however, that the fight over the order and the panels could negatively affect future discussions on roads and other areas of the budget.
Statements from interest groups on both sides praising or condemning the move were swift in coming following the vote.
Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley praised the Senate on the vote, calling the governor’s move an overreach and the vote a move to make sure the three branches of state government remain equal.
“The Chamber is not opposed to reorganization of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for purposes of administrative efficiency. However, we will continue to resist efforts to eliminate three necessary and important panels to provide oversight of the bureaucracy at the DEQ,” Mr. Studley said.
Michigan Farm Bureau President Carl Bednarski also was pleased with the outcome Thursday, calling the vote a victory for government accountability.
“The panels ensure transparency and accountability with the regulatory agency and they should be given the opportunity to function as the Legislature intended when they were implemented last year,” Mr. Bednarski said. “Farmers rely on the health of our state’s environment and natural resources to produce food, fiber and fuel. These panels enhance our ability to be good stewards of our land, air and water – they don’t detract from it.”
Environmental groups denounced the move.
“Governor Whitmer’s executive order would have streamlined government bureaucracy and made the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality more responsive to the needs of Michigan residents who are most impacted by harmful air and water pollution,” Michigan Environmental Council Policy Director James Clift said. “In approving the resolution, our state legislature chose to needlessly delay and hamstring real progress in protecting our water and public health.”
Michigan League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Lisa Wozniak echoed Mr. Clift.
“Instead of joining Gov. Whitmer to protect public health, lawmakers are launching partisan attacks over unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that will only slow down, block and delay cleanup of polluted sites and protections of our water. Blocking Governor Whitmer’s order is a step backward for protecting our air, land, Great Lakes and the health of Michiganders,” Ms. Wozniak said.