Wednesday afternoon, Governor Whitmer overplayed her hand during negotiations with the legislature – releasing emails from her staff to the press just minutes after they were sent to majority caucus staffers in an attempt to come out on top.
Not only did Whitmer destroy any remaining goodwill and trust with the legislature, she used her partisan press conference as an opportunity to “torpedo” Republican leadership. From her bully pulpit, Whitmer announced a new program the state cannot pay for, promoted Sen. Gary Peters in a highly competitive Senate race, and allowed a union boss to attack the Republican Legislature.
The legislature had continued to negotiate with the governor in good faith, despite her budget veto debacle last year. Yesterday was the final straw for a relationship with the legislature that was hanging on by a thread.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox weighed in on the governor’s selfish actions stating, “Michiganders are hurting. Businesses are facing insolvency. Workers can’t get access to unemployment aid they desperately need, and now Whitmer wants to pick a fight with the legislature that’s trying to get the state back on track. The governor isn’t about the people of Michigan at all, she’s all about Gretchen Whitmer.”
In commentary for Crain’s Detroit, Senior Editor Chad Livengood outlines how “In one hour, Whitmer shatters trust with Legislature”.
Commentary: In one hour, Whitmer shatters trust with Legislature
April 29, 2020
In the matter of an hour Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer torpedoed Republican legislative leadership over their role in extending a state of emergency, announced a new program the state doesn't have the money to sustain and let a labor leader bash the Legislature from her office podium.
Instead of asserting her constitutional and legal authority to continue managing the worst public health crisis in a century without a check on her power, the governor decided to shatter any trust or goodwill she's built up with the Legislature in recent months.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m., Whitmer's staff forwarded reporters two emails between top aides to House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and the governor's legislative director, Jen Flood, and chief legal counsel, Mark Totten.
GOP legislative leaders wanted to grant Whitmer "two one-week extensions in exchange for a public agreement that all future stay-at-home-type orders (and only those) be enacted through bipartisan legislation and the democratic process rather than executive order," Shirkey chief of staff Jeremy Henges told Flood and Totten at 11:21 a.m.
At 2:26 p.m., Flood sent Henges and other legislative aides a response quoting the governor that she could not "abrogate my duty to act in an emergency to protect the lives of Michiganders."
"Michigan remains in a state of emergency regardless of the actions you decide to take or not take," the governor was quoted as saying.
At 2:36 p.m., Whitmer's office rolled out a plan to create a new free college tuition incentive for frontline workers in the pandemic —a month after she vetoed $35 million for her own free college tuition program to save cash during the ensuing economic crisis.
The governor later said there's a pot of federal funds to pay for this program. But those sources usually dry up quickly — and she'll need the Legislature's blessing to spend the money.
At 3 p.m., the governor took the stage for a press conference that had a more partisan tinge to it than her previous press briefings.
Whitmer promoted federal legislation providing hazard pay for front-line workers sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who faces a tough re-election this year against Republican businessman John James.
Then the governor handed her microphone over to AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber, who used part of his time to lay into the Legislature and former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for reducing unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.
At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, Whitmer temporarily reversed the Legislature by executive order.
"I'm hoping the Legislature follows her lead by making this change permanent," Bieber said. "Frankly those six weeks should have never been cut in the first place."
What Bieber didn't mention is the troubles tens of thousands of jobless workers face each day in trying to reach someone at Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency, whose director acknowledged earlier in the day that the agency can only handle 5,000 of the 150,000 phone calls it receives each day.
UIA Director Steve Gray publicly apologized for how "areas of our (web) site aren't very user friendly" during a Facebook Live interview with The Detroit News.
"That's probably putting it mildly," he said.
Here's a mild question for lawmakers to ask in their forthcoming investigation of the meltdown at the unemployment agency: Why didn't the governor put a war-like response behind reassigning thousands of state employees to process unemployment claims and answer phones in mid-March?
Some construction industry workers who are poised to go back to work next week are still waiting for their claim to be processed — after five weeks of waiting.
"Hour after hour, day after day, morning, noon and night they continue to try to file for the unemployment benefits that they are entitled to," said Rich Studley, CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "We had a so-called labor leader there who didn't say a thing about that on behalf of his (construction trades) members who are unemployed."
Whether lawmakers take action Thursday or not, Whitmer is extending the coronavirus state of emergency this week by another 28 days on her own.
Whitmer has at her disposal two different disaster-declaring laws from 1945 and 1976 that she can use to impose her stay-at-home order on certain workers and businesses and other restrictions on commerce and the movement of people.
It's just a matter of whether lawmakers want to keep granting nurses, physicians, hospitals and nursing homes an added layer of liability immunity that was added to the Emergency Management Act of 1976 after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
After initially granting a 23-day extension of Whitmer's emergency powers, GOP legislative leaders have been resigned for weeks that they can't stop her from keeping the state's residents sheltered in place while the state's increased COVID-19 testing turns up more and more infected people.
But that hasn't stopped them from trying to influence the governor's decision-making.
However, the decision by Whitmer's office to leak a select couple of emails — while shielding the rest of their deliberations — may prove to be the point of no return between this governor and Legislature.
"The majority leader's assessment of her actions is that the governor gave him the double middle finger," Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said.
Whitmer, who has the polling numbers on her side to suggest the overall public supports her actions in the crisis, continues to frame her lockdown strategy as one that's backed by science instead of politics.
"They're acting as though we're in the midst of a political problem," Whitmer said of the Legislature. "This is not a political problem that we have. This a public health crisis."
There's no doubt the pandemic is still raging in Michigan — new case growth is rising faster in West Michigan and another 103 residents lost their lives to COVID-19 between Tuesday and Wednesday.
But when the public health threat subsides, the governor will face bigger problems getting anything done at the Capitol after Wednesday afternoon's political hour.