As Governor Orders Environmental Action, Michigan's GOP House Expresses Disapproval

by | February 7, 2019 AT 7:35 AM

By Lauren Gibbons

The Michigan House voted Wednesday to formally disapprove of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order that would restructure the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but the governor said she has no intentions of withdrawing it.

Lawmakers voted 58-51 along partisan lines on a concurrent resolution to overturn Executive Order 2019-2, which would rebrand the Department of Environmental Quality as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). The executive order would also create new offices within the department, including the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate, the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, and the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.

Republicans specifically took issue with what they considered a "de facto veto" of Legislature-approved oversight panels. A section in the order would get rid of the Environmental Rules Review Committee, Environmental Permit Review Commission and Environmental Science Advisory Board.

Those panels were recently established by the legislature and were backed by the business community -- on Monday, Michigan Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley urged the legislature to "seriously consider" disapproving the order.

In a press conference following the House vote, Whitmer said the chamber's action doesn't change how strongly she feels about it: "We are confident that this is the most meaningful thing we can do to clean up our water."

"I think we need to be very clear: the House Republicans today, on a party line vote, voted down protections for drinking water. They voted down the creation of a public advocate for clean drinking water," she said. "Today's actions endangers our public and threatens to burn bridges, and that's unfortunate, because there are a lot of people in this state that our counting on us to clean up drinking water."

Rep. Jim Lower, the resolution's sponsor, said he considered the executive order an overreach that "constituted a direct attack" on legislative powers. He also defended the panels' merits and said they provided a needed layer over oversight.

"We shouldn't be silencing the voices of people with on the ground, commonsense experience," said Lower, R-Cedar Lake.

Several Republicans said they would support the order restructuring the DEQ if not for the removal of the panels created by the legislature. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told reporters he still hopes to find a compromise with the governor on the matter in future conversations.

"I am optimistic that we can continue healthy conversations and negotiations with this governor, and I will ensure that happens," he said.

Both the House and Senate would need to have a majority vote to disapprove of the executive order within 60 days to prevent Whitmer's executive order from going into effect. The Senate adjourned Wednesday without taking up a similar resolution.

House Democrats protested the effort to reject the governor's order, noting that legislative action to undo executive orders is rare and that turning it down would undo necessary reforms to protect residents' air and water quality.

"For the life of me, I don't understand why we would want to overturn this executive order," Rep. LaTanya Garrett, D-Detroit, said on the House floor, adding that if the chamber's true intent was to protect the health and safety of residents, they would have fully supported the governor's plan.

During a committee hearing on the resolution earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Christine Greig said the committees have only been up and running for a few months, and there are already problems with conflicts of interest.

"Should that not be the prerogative of the governor, to fix things that people have already brought to light?" Greig said. "(The panels are) fraught with lack of accountability and conflicts of interest. Frankly, it's the fox guarding the hen house in these commissions."

Amid the intense discussion over her executive order, Whitmer said she's requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel on the legality of two of the panels in question: the Environmental Rules Review Committee and the Environmental Permit Review Commission.

"These commissions create unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that get in the way of our state government responding to problems with drinking water quickly, and their creation may violate federal requirements under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act," Whitmer said in a statement. "I look forward to hearing from Attorney General Nessel as we work to resolve this issue and ensure every community has clean, safe drinking water."

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