This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Q: COVID-19 has presented unforeseen challenges on an unimaginable scope across the globe. Tell us how the pandemic has impacted your role as Senate Majority Leader.
Senator Shirkey: The presence of COVID-19 also brought about the use of the 1945 Emergency Powers Act by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, rendering the legislative process unrecognizable. The executive and legislative branches did work together at the start of the pandemic. In fact, Senate staff were included in early discussions regarding executive orders. Unfortunately, the Governor stopped working with the Legislature once we questioned the indefinite extension of the State of Emergency.
Over the many months that the Governor relied upon unilateral authority, the Legislature was reduced to a litigant against the Administration in order to regain our role as an equal branch of government. During that time, it was the citizens of Michigan who were most impacted because their voices were not represented in the process. While I do believe the Governor was focused on the health and safety of our state, her unwillingness to work with her legislative partners in any capacity made it difficult to move forward once the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the 1945 law, and her use of it, to be unconstitutional in early October.
My colleagues and I are focused on moving Michigan forward by passing laws that protect the lives and livelihoods of our fellow citizens.
Q: In light of the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn the 1945 Emergency Powers Act that Governor Whitmer has used to issue COVID-19-related orders, what can our members expect from the Legislature in response to the pandemic?
Senator Shirkey: From the very start of the pandemic, the Senate Republicans have said that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing life in the presence of COVID-19 is wrong. The impact of the virus on Oakland County at any given time can vary significantly from the impact on Grand Traverse County, for example. We believe local health authorities should follow recommended guidelines and well-established metrics to implement policies within their regions. The State also has a role in helping to mitigate the impact of the virus and respond to circumstances that require changes in policy.
In the wake of the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling, the Legislature immediately began the process of determining which policies contained within the executive orders demanded timely action and which deserved more review and input from the statewide community. The Senate and House acted quickly to ensure the extension of unemployment benefits for out-of-work Michiganders and worked to ensure safer workplaces by encouraging employers to follow recommended health and safety guidelines in exchange for liability protection. We passed legislation to protect our most vulnerable population, the residents of nursing homes. And the Legislature changed the law to allow local governments to conduct business remotely to ensure the health and safety of local communities.
The Governor’s staff did engage to negotiate details of the legislation once the Senate had taken initial action. The result was support from Governor Whitmer and her signature to place the policy changes into law.
Q: This year, the Legislature passed a $62.8 billion budget for the 2021 Fiscal Year on a wide bipartisan vote in a record-breaking 10 hours. Does this signal a more balanced, bipartisan tone in Lansing in the future?
Senator Shirkey: Most of the legislation that comes up for a vote in the Senate and House receives bipartisan support — it just doesn’t make headlines. We obviously get more attention from the press, and more stories are written, when we disagree.
I hope that we can continue to move forward in a bipartisan manner. We still manage to pass bipartisan legislation even when the Governor disagrees with the legislative majority.
Michigan’s economy fared better than expected through the initial impact of COVID-19. Resources from the federal government contributed to that stability but we also benefited from a robust economy before COVID-19 and a strong small business and manufacturing sector that helped see our state through a potentially devastating experience.
There are many businesses that closed and many people unemployed because of COVID-19 and stimulus money from the federal government is not a permanent solution. We must be diligent at the state level in making sure we pursue policies that promote health and safety and support our business community. A healthy population and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand.
Q: This year has dealt manufacturers a tremendous amount of uncertainty and upheaval. What do you see on the horizon for Michigan manufacturers?
Senator Shirkey: All businesses need certainty in order to plan and succeed. I have heard from business owners across all sectors of the economy and throughout our state and they all say the same thing, “We need certainty from the State so we know what we need to do going forward.”
We have seen the impact of government overreach without citizen input and it has been deemed unconstitutional. Beyond that, the Senate Republicans always knew it was unsustainable. As the owner of a small manufacturing company, I know from experience that business owners want to keep their workplaces safe and their employees healthy because it results in a more successful business.
My personal focus through the winter will be to hold hearings and provide a forum where citizens can share their insights into which policies issued since the pandemic have been helpful, which have been hurtful and what can be improved. I look forward to the Michigan manufacturing community being a large part of that process.