Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Tuesday sent Gov. Rick Snyder controversial legislation that could give industry officials a larger say in the creation of new environmental rules and permits.
Environmentalists have likened the proposal to the proverbial “fox guarding the henhouse,” but GOP lawmakers and business groups contend it would add oversight to decisions made by unelected bureaucrats in state government.
The upper chamber approved House changes in a 25-11 vote without floor debate during a flurry of activity on the final day before lawmakers leave Lansing for the summer recess. The measure was opposed by all 10 Democrats and Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights.
The proposed Environmental Rules Review Committee would oversee rule-making by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and could theoretically reject rules that do not “achieve their purposes in proportion to the burdens they place on individuals and businesses.”
The panel would include six officials or lobbyists from business groups and industries, including oil and gas companies. Six other slots would be reserved for citizens and environmental, local government, health and land conservancy organizations.
Other bills in the package would create a new environmental permit appeal panel appointed by the governor and an executive environmental science advisory board to advise the governor and state agencies.
The House scaled back a more aggressive Senate plan in January that would have created an industry-dominated rules panel, but environmental groups say the legislation remains problematic.
The bills heading to Snyder “still give polluters and special interests a powerful, unnecessary influence in deciding how many toxins can be sent up smokestacks and how much contamination is considered ‘safe’ to drink,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League for Conservation Voters.
The bills are backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business group that says the bills will “require more stakeholder involvement earlier in the DEQ rulemaking process.”
“The DEQ reform bills will create a more cooperative rulemaking process, where stakeholders and DEQ staff will have more meaningful interactions that produce better policy outcomes,” energy and environmental policy director Jason Geer said last month as the bills cleared the House. “Both the Science Advisory Board and the permit appeal panel will ensure that DEQ decisions are focused on the science rather than personal opinions or politics.”
Registered lobbyists could serve on the rules review committee but would be limited to one paid client while reviewing rules proposed by the state environmental department. Members would not be required to have a scientific background, but the state environmental and health departments would each select a science adviser to participate in rule review committee meetings.
Outright rules rejection could be rare, as halting the process would require a vote by nine committee members. But a simple majority of members could send a proposed rule back to the DEQ for additional consideration and potential revisions.
A separate appeals panel would be established to recommend action to the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on disputes related to permits and applications. The environmental science board would advise the governor and state agencies on environmental-related issues, but their recommendations would be non-binding.
Snyder helped negotiate changes to the legislation but has not yet made clear whether he intends to sign the final version of the bills.