LANSING (AP) — The first tussle between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature isn't over how to fix roads, overhaul school funding or tackle high car insurance premiums.
Instead, they're clashing over the environment — specifically how Michigan adopts regulations and permit requirements for businesses and citizens. It's also a fight over executive vs. legislative powers, with both sides justly pointing to the law to back them up.
Whitmer, in an order to reshape the state Department of Environmental Quality, abolished three panels enacted by GOP lawmakers and her predecessor. One oversees environmental rule-making and another can approve, modify or reverse permit decisions that have been challenged by companies or other parties.
Whitmer, who thinks the commissions violate federal law, is empowered by the state constitution to change the organization of the executive branch. Former Republican Gov. John Engler, for example, eliminated 18 legislatively created natural resources panels in 1991 as part of a sweeping restructuring.
"These are not essential," Whitmer said of the new commissions that were created last year. "In fact, these are one more layer that keeps us from actually cleaning up drinking water and having real accountability and making sure that decisions are made by scientists who are looking out for our public health, not their own special interests."
Republicans disagree and may be on the verge of negating her order, which is a rarely used option under the constitution. The House rejected it Wednesday , while the Senate is holding hearings. The last time both chambers turned down an executive order was more than 40 years ago, though a deal could be reached before the faceoff escalates further.
"This is clearly a bridge too far and something that we should push back on," said GOP Rep. James Lower of Cedar Lake. He said the boards give the public and those who must abide by environmental regulations more input in the process. He also downplayed the panels' powers, saying the Whitmer administration still has the final say.
That's true for the rules review committee — whose makeup includes six industry officials, two people representing the general public, a public health expert and a representative each for environmental and conservation groups, drawing criticism that it's overly stacked with "polluters." But the permit review commission that's comprised of 15 engineers, scientists and other experts has more power.
James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said it is "crystal clear" that in cases where DEQ decisions on water, air and other permits are contested, the permit commission's opinion is final — unless there's a court appeal.
"I'm concerned that final decisions by the executive branch aren't made by a person who's directly accountable to the voters of the state of Michigan," he said. Inserting an extra layer into rule-making above the governor's department director, he said, will slow what already is a yearslong process of setting environmental regulations to safeguard public health.
Whitmer made environmental protection and water cleanup a campaign priority following Flint's crisis and the discovery of chemical compounds in at least 40 locations across the state. Other parts of her order, such as renaming the department and creating new public advocacy offices to investigate complaints about water quality and help ensure fair consideration of low-income and minority community interests, aren't opposed by Republicans or their allies in the business community.
"This action is a huge setback. I'm not going to, you know, perfume it," she said while accusing the House GOP of voting "against clean drinking water."
Republicans aren't taking kindly to the criticism.
Former Sen. Tom Capserson of Escanaba, who sponsored one of the business-backed laws that Whitmer is seeking to neuter, returned to Lansing to defend it in a Senate committee hearing Thursday. The impetus for the measures, he said, was to give citizens an "equal footing" to fight regulators' arbitrary and unfair actions.
"I was accused of wanting to poison water," he said. "I can tell you people that know me, my family, know that that would be the last thing on the planet that I would ever want to do. I take offense to it."