Gretchen Whitmer
© governor Gretchen Whitmer
Legislation that would overturn one of the emergency laws Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used as authority to issue COVID-19 orders during the first several months of the pandemic cleared the Michigan House early Friday morning.

Senate Bill 857, sponsored by Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act, one of two state laws currently on the books Whitmer used to issue a wide swath of orders that required masks in public spaces, limited crowd sizes, and closed various establishments after the legislature opted not to extend the initial state of emergency declaration on April 30.

Whitmer's use of the act was ultimately deemed unconstitutional in a split October Michigan Supreme Court decision after Republicans and others challenged the orders in state and federal courts. That's left it up to the legislature to codify many of the COVID-19 executive orders invalidated by the ruling, although the state's Department of Health and Human Services has mirrored several of Whitmer's response measures in subsequent public health emergency orders.

Legislative Republicans have long butted heads with Whitmer over COVID-19 pandemic response, arguing that she's left the legislature out of discussions before implementing restrictions on in-person business and activity to limit the spread of the virus. Whitmer has criticized the legislature for not supporting prevention measures recommended by public health experts, including a statewide mandate to wear masks.

Barrett's legislation passed the House in a 57-43 vote. Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said regardless of the situation, the scope of the 1945 law gives too much authority to the executive branch to act without the legislature.

"I don't care who the governor is โ€” I think it's improper levels of power," he said. "This is not what ought to be in our state laws. This is handing over the keys."

Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said if the legislature had acted sooner and passed laws to save lives when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck Michigan, "perhaps we would not have needed executive orders."

"But we didn't," he said. "We didn't meet, we didn't pass any protections. And so this 1945 law... which was created for the intent and express purpose of saving lives during an emergency was used."

Rabhi went on to criticize lawmakers for focusing on ways to further limit Whitmer's power to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic instead of fighting the pandemic itself.

The bill would need to be signed by Whitmer to become law. She's previously expressed opposition to legislation that would limit executive powers.

The vote came at the end of a packed day for both chambers as the current legislative session winds down. The next legislative session will begin in January, at which point any legislation not passed through both chambers and sent to the governor would have to be re-introduced and considered by a new crop of lawmakers.

Before adjourning early Friday morning, lawmakers also approved via voice vote a concurrent resolution passed by the state Senate on Thursday to create a joint committee that could overturn a state agency's rules and regulations in between legislative sessions, although the scope of what such a committee could do remains disputed.

Initially, both the House and Senate were scheduled to be done with the current session Thursday. But both chambers will meet again for additional votes โ€” 10 a.m Friday in the Senate, 8 a.m. Monday in the House โ€” and the biggest issue left on the table is whether lawmakers and the administration can reach a deal on additional spending to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Whitmer administration requested roughly $300 million in state spending for funding ongoing testing and contact tracing needs, pay increases for direct care workers, vaccine distribution and other COVID-19 response measures. That was in addition to a previous ask for a $100 million economic stimulus package to support families and small businesses hard-hit by the pandemic.

Shortly before adjourning for the evening Thursday, Senate Republicans released a framework of priorities for COVID-19 relief without suggesting a target number.

Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said in a statement the Senate Republican plan "would use available state funds and federal dollars" for many of the same priorities the Whitmer administration outlined, but said the governor "continues to go it alone on COVID-19," criticizing the partial shutdowns of in-person business ordered by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Gideon D'Assandro, spokesperson for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said early Friday morning COVID-19 relief remains a shared priority and said talks are still ongoing between both chambers and the administration.