Whitmer deems some COVID-19 budget sections unconstitutional
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday deemed some Republican-backed budget provisions to be unconstitutional attempts to restrict COVID-19 public health measures but allowed language limiting possible government vaccination requirements.
The Democrat’s moves, which did not surprise GOP lawmakers involved in negotiations, came in conjunction with her signing off on $55 billion in spending two days before the start of the new fiscal year.
Whitmer’s office already said she would block two sections affecting local health departments. One would have prohibited mask mandates for anyone under 18. The other would have stripped the agencies’ funding if they had a pandemic order in effect as of this Friday, unless county commissioners voted to support it.
“The legislature cannot unwind the Public Health Code in a budget bill or un-appropriate funds because they take issue with the actions of local health department,” she wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Despite the language having no force, the Berrien County Health Department in southwestern Michigan quickly rescinded its prekindergarten through 12th grade indoor mask requirement, saying its hands were tied and it might lose nearly $1.5 million. It urged local school districts to require face coverings. The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department in the Upper Peninsula revoked its K-6 requirement last week, also citing the budget provisions that the state will not enforce.
The governor indirectly addressed a provision that attempts to require certain exemptions for students at universities with coronavirus vaccine mandates. The schools receive state funding but are independently operated.
She said any provision that deprives universities of their supervisory control and budgetary independence is unconstitutional.
“They’ve got to decide how they’re going to implement boilerplate. It’s my understanding that none of the universities have policies that run contrary to the spirit of that boilerplate anyway,” Whitmer told reporters before signing the bills.
Negotiated language that remains intact restricts state and municipal COVID-19 vaccine requirements — including for government employees — and bans so-called government vaccine passports. Whitmer is OK with the provision because it does not apply to medical facilities and it recognizes that President Joe Biden plans to implement a “soft” vaccine mandate — requiring that employers with at least 100 workers force them to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.
It “provides a roadmap for public employers to ensure their employees either receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing to keep their co-workers safe,” Whitmer wrote.
The pending federal regulations could affect government employees in Michigan. The governor did state that any provision infringing on the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s exclusive authority to regulate conditions of employment is unconstitutional.
She also allowed a requirement that the state health department provide evidence justifying emergency epidemic orders and list what factors it will consider when deciding whether to terminate or modify them.
Whitmer, whose administration lifted pandemic orders three months ago, has repeatedly said she does not plan to issue broad vaccine or mask mandates. But she also has made clear that she will oppose GOP attempts to undermine or restrict “basic lifesaving actions.”
Republicans expressed disappointment that the anti-mask provision was nixed, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status.
“Many parents are choosing to wear a mask and have their children wear one when possible, but it should be their decision to make for themselves and their family,” said Republican state Sen. Michael MacDonald, of Macomb Township.
An earlier version of this story was corrected to reflect that Whitmer didn’t deem as unenforceable a provision requiring universities with vaccine mandates to include certain exemptions, but that she said the universities have the autonomy to decide whether to abide.
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