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Pandemic transparency good, cuffs for public health bad

The state budget bill unveiled this week would force some much-needed transparency on the administration’s ability to enact pandemic emergency rules but also would unwisely tie the hands of public health officials trying to protect their communities.

The $70 billion bill, which would take effect Oct. 1 if it passes the state House and earns Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature (it already unanimously passed the state Senate), would require the administration to clearly spell out the reasoning for any pandemic rules, cite any experts whose counsel helped develop the rules, and list benchmarks for how and when the administration might lift the rules.

The bill also would prohibit public agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of employees or customers (unless the federal government implements such a rule) and would prohibit either the state or local health departments from requiring facemasks for K-12 students. Local school boards still could enact such rules.

First, we’ll say budget bills are terrible ways to enact policy. The policy is only good for a year, until lawmakers have to negotiate the next budget, all but guaranteeing another fight down the road that could slow up much-needed clarity on revenue for schools and local governments.

That said, we wholeheartedly support the demand for more transparency. We always support as much government transparency as safely possible, and we have written in this space before that the lack of clear benchmarks and reasoning made the pandemic rules more agonizing to endure. We didn’t know exactly why we went under them, exactly what the rules were meant to accomplish, or when we might get out from under them.

When we give great power to one elected official, that official ought to explain every decision to wield that power.

We question, however, lawmakers’ decision to remove the ability of public health officials to enact public health measures. Lawmakers, as a rule, are not doctors or scientists. Nor, as a rule, are school board trustees.

The state health department and local health departments, however, are staffed and often led by people with medical and epidemiological training. And local health departments intimately know the makeups of their communities and the risks their communities face.

We’re not saying mask or vaccine mandates are the right decision, but they could be in certain circumstances, and that’s a tool we ought to leave in public health officials’ toolbox. It’s a decision we ought to leave to public health experts, not politicians.

Whitmer can veto specific portions of the budget, and we urge to veto those handcuffs while signing on to the transparency demands.

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