An unusually dry spring sparked extensive wildfires in and around Michigan last week. A 2,400-acre fire near Grayling forced I-75 to close temporarily, and last week the U.S. Forest Service rated the fire risk in many parts of the state “extreme,” the service’s most severe label. Meanwhile, air quality in some places is “among the worst in the world,” according to MLive.com.
But despite the danger, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not declared a state emergency.
Michigan’s emergency powers laws do not adequately instruct governors when to grant themselves unilateral control in case of emergency. As a result, this decision is left to the discretion of governors or even unelected state bureaucrats. That may be why these decisions seem inconsistent at times.
The Emergency Management Act, a state law that grants the governor unilateral control during a declared emergency, names “fires” and “air contamination” as legitimate reasons for its use. But this time Whitmer has decided there’s no role for the state and is leaving it up to local governments and individuals to manage these threats. Instead of issuing a statewide burn ban, for instance, the governor merely discouraged people from making outdoor fires. To protect the state from polluted air, her administration only issued an advisory statement reminding people of the dangers of breathing unhealthy air.
The severity of COVID-19 might explain the governor’s different approach to wildfires and contaminated air. But why were emergencies declared for vaping, racism and cold weather? Why couldn’t local communities and individuals handle those issues on their own? Only the governor can provide these answers, because there is no standard for invoking emergency powers. Governors seem able to declare emergencies for any problem, or not.
Emergency powers should be used in a consistent and predictable manner. Michigan’s laws, unfortunately, provide little guidance for when these powers may be triggered, leaving the decision to the discretion of governors and bureaucrats. Lawmakers should improve these statutes and make it clear when these extraordinary powers can and should be used.
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