Senate Passes Pandemic Bills To Address Nullified Executive Orders

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The Senate met Thursday and passed five bills targeting areas Republican leadership deemed top priorities to fill gaps in combatting the new coronavirus pandemic following the Supreme Court’s ruling last week that rendered Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders null and void.

Nursing home policy, unemployment benefits, pensions, and electronic meetings of public meetings were covered in the legislation before the chamber Thursday.

The bills passed with wide margins Thursday, though Senate Republicans tie-barred an unemployment extension (SB 886) to a set of bills providing COVID-19 liability protections to businesses (HB 6101HB 6030HB 6031 and HB 6032).

While the bills passed by large margins, they came under criticism.

AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber blasted the move in a statement.

“Every time you think they’ve found the bottom, Republicans stoop even lower. Today, with hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers waiting to see what they would do, legislative Republicans took advantage of the attention on a plot to kidnap and murder the governor to quietly tie-bar unemployment fixes to their dirty scheme to reward businesses who fail or refuse to protect workers and customers from the coronavirus,” Bieber said. “That’s right: they have taken unemployed folks hostage, threatening them if they don’t get their liability bailout for big businesses. It’s disgusting and wrong, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

In a statement SB 886 and SB 911 sponsor Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) said he hopes the Governor will sign his bills and the other legislation to help members of the public in need of their benefits.

“Last spring, a million paychecks came to a screeching halt as businesses were shuttered and stay-at-home orders were put in place,” Horn said. “What followed was months of uncertainty for both employees and employers alike who waited to see if they would be able to open their doors again and when and if they’d be getting a call to return to work. The court’s message to the governor clearly echoed what my colleagues and I have been arguing for months – we need to work together to defeat this virus.”

Passing the Senate by a 38-0 vote was SB 1094, which would require the state to implement dedicated facilities to house COVID-19 positive nursing home patients.

Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township), sponsor of SB 1094, praised its quick movement through the Senate in a statement following the vote.

“This reform is part of a process to work with the governor to put critical protections in law to prevent the spread of the virus among our most vulnerable people,” Lucido said. “It’s our moral duty as a society to protect our elders – far too many of whom have died from COVID-19 in nursing facilities. With this commonsense reform, we can help save lives by ensuring the health and safety of our seniors in nursing facilities and the staff who care for them. I also hope this illustrates the positive results we can achieve for the people of Michigan by working together.”

Under SB 886, which passed 38-0, eligible individuals who filed an initial unemployment claim due to COVID-19 would still be able to receive up to 26 weeks of benefits rather than up to 20 for the next several months. Senators also approved SB 911 by a 38-0 vote, which would allow retirees from the Unemployment Insurance Agency and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be rehired without losing retirement benefits.

The Open Meetings Act would be amended under SB 1108 to allow for local public bodies to meet remotely without the need for an executive order to be issued by the governor. The bill passed 36-2.

Speaking in opposition to SB 1108 was Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who questioned whether provisions in the bill could lead to abuses by local elected boards. He said there is no way to tell if a board member is actually participating in a meeting or muting themselves and being influenced on their vote by someone off-camera, among other concerns. He also questioned what the protocols are for technology glitches or failures.

“At least when it’s in the public, the members of the public who are there can see what the board members are doing, and see they’re not paying attention and hold them accountable that way,” McBroom said.

Each of the bills now will go before the House next Tuesday, the earliest date the chamber can take up the proposals.

A fifth bill, HB 6159, did not come up Thursday for a vote despite being on the tentative schedule. The bill would provide health care workers immunity from lawsuits based on their work to provide care to patients infected with COVID-19. When it might come to the floor was not immediately known Thursday.

Each of the four bills was substituted prior to the Senate votes.

Changes made in a S-2 floor substitute for SB 1094 added several provisions including a requirement for monthly reporting to House and Senate committees on COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries in nursing facilities involving residents and staff, among others.

Changes to SB 1108 in an S-4 substitute included new provisions requiring a note to be made in meeting minutes if a member of the board or commission is participating in the meeting from outside of the state for reasons other than a medical issue. A sunset of March 1, 2021, was also added to the bill.

For SB 886, an S-2 substitute largely consists of setting a sunset of Dec. 31, 2020, for various provisions. A Dec. 31, 2020 sunset was also added to an S-1 substitute to SB 911.

*Article originally published in Gongwer.


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