LANSING, Mich. – Michigan lawmakers voted Thursday to prohibit water shutoffs across the state through March, reinstating a moratorium that was upended by a court ruling.
The bill, which received final approval 96-9 from the House, will be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It was among a number of pandemic-related measures approved by legislators — some with consensus, others along party lines — as they worked to finish business before adjourning for the year.
Negotiations over $100 million in aid for small businesses and laid-off workers continued between the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature.
Whitmer had barred water shutoffs in an order last spring. But the state Supreme Court in October declared unconstitutional a law that was the basis for the governor's sweeping orders to curb the coronavirus and provide relief such as a freeze on shutoffs.
“Water is a human right and, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is essential to hydration, hygiene and public health,” said the bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Stephanie Chang of Detroit. “It is my hope that this bill, combined with recent efforts by the city of Detroit, will give residents some peace of mind as we head into the new year and one less thing to worry about during this difficult time.”
Detroit last week announced an extension of shutoff protections through 2022.
In a House session that stretched past midnight into Friday, Republicans voted to limit the length of COVID-19 restrictions issued by the Whitmer administration to 28 days, unless they were extended by the Legislature.
The governor would veto the bill, which needs a final Senate vote after a change was made to prevent the state health director from limiting capacity at places of worship or banning a religious practice. The current emergency order exempts places of worship and attendees from penalties for a violation of gathering limits.
Rep. Ben Frederick, an Owosso Republican, criticized Whitmer's “heavy-handedness” and said the measure would give legislators a say.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, the people of Michigan have been put through a process of vagaries and open-ended stress, denied hope and critical engagement, and any measure of certainty," he said. “We as lawmakers have had a diminished voice on their behalf.”
Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said last week that the Legislature has spent the better part of a year “trying to tie the governor's hands and hamper the ability to respond to a public health crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Michiganders."
The House also broke on party lines in voting to repeal the 1945 law that was struck down by the high court and extending virus-related liability protections for health care providers to include psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes. Both bills could be vetoed.
The legal immunity bill would apply retroactively, starting Oct. 30 and lasting through Feb. 13.
The Legislature, by voice votes, also approved a resolution to create a GOP-dominated legislative commission that could try to block any new rules or regulations created by the Whitmer administration between when the Legislature officially adjourns late this month and a new one convenes Jan. 13. Republicans remain frustrated by the state health department's order that has prohibited indoor restaurant dining and in-person instruction at high schools while also closing entertainment venues.
Democrats said such a panel, if formed, could halt rules promulgated by an agency between legislative session — not an order issued by a state officer such as Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon.
Lawmakers did overwhelmingly agree to extend public bodies’ ability to meet remotely through March. The House split 60-43, however, on legislation that would let restaurants, gyms and entertainment businesses defer their 2020 summer property taxes until 2021 without owing fees or interest.
Whitmer vetoed a similar bill in July, though it was broader.
Numerous business groups urged her to sign the latest measure, calling it a short-term lifeline. The state Treasury Department has reservations and was in discussions to “try to make it workable,” spokesman Ron Leix said, noting Whitmer's call for $100 million for hard-hit businesses and individuals.
“We look forward to continued discussions on how to best target that relief,” he said.
The Senate was to convene Friday and the House was to return Monday — their final voting days of the two-year session.
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