The COVID-19 pandemic saw many governors around the country dusting off old state statutes granting them emergency powers in such situations, and then acting unilaterally to issue mask mandates, lockdown orders, and other restrictions that severely impacted daily life, not to mention local economies. As those emergency powers dragged on, renewed by each governor again and again, without the involvement of the legislature, citizens in many states became disenchanted.
Michigan citizens, for example, took issue with Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID mandates, and started a petition drive in 2020 to repeal a state law, known as the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945. They needed 340,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot – they easily obtained 540,000 in just 80 days.
However, Michigan’s initiative process allows for the legislature to approve the initiative without it having to go to the voters.
And that’s what happened. On July 21, the Michigan House followed the state Senate in approving the measure. Under Michigan’s law on citizen initiatives, the new law cannot be vetoed by the Governor.
The petition drive, known as the Unlock Michigan initiative, was probably unnecessary, since the Michigan Supreme Court last year declared the Emergency Powers Act unconstitutional. But the new law will completely remove the law from the books, preventing any future court from reinstating it.
The Michigan governor retains some emergency powers under a newer law, one that allows unilateral orders and mandates that last for only 28 days, at which time the legislature must approve any extension.
Other states have already taken similar actions following dissatisfaction with the impact of emergency orders due to COVID.
In Pennsylvania, voters passed one constitutional amendment reducing the duration of the governor’s powers during an emergency, and another allowing the legislature to either extend or revoke an existing emergency order.
Other state legislatures, concerned about the unilateral closure of churches by governors during the pandemic, passed “Religion is Essential” legislation ensuring that worship services would be treated fairly in future emergency situations, and not targeted for more restrictive treatment than similarly situated secular activities. Even the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the fray, issuing injunctions against unfair treatment of churches by state governors and local health authorities.
Americans have an innate distrust of the concentration of power in one person, or even one branch of government, which is why the founders incorporated the principle of the “separation of powers” into our Constitution. By balancing the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches against each other and incorporating a system of “checks and balances” into our governing documents, the federal government – and every state government – is organized in such a way as to frustrate any one branch from gaining too much power.
The pandemic experience also revealed that the freedom of religion is too important a right to be entrusted to the whims of any particular elected politician. If the actions of some state governors in response to COVID-19 proved anything, they showed how easily churches and religious organizations could be relegated to second-class status in American life simply by designating them “non-essential.”
The actions of Michigan voters and its legislature – along with similar legislation in various states – reflect a justifiable push-back against that tendency.
Photo from Shutterstock