Jane Briggs-Bunting is the founding president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a tax exempt, Michigan nonprofit corporation founded to promote and protect transparency and accountability in government at the local, state and federal levels.
In 2016, a bipartisan group of 37 Michigan state representatives banded together to introduce a series of bills called the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA). These bill weren’t perfect, but they closed two glaring flaws in the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by making the governor, lieutenant governor, the 110 members of the state House and 38 members of the state Senate subject to the Michigan FOIA.
Although the bills overwhelmingly passed the state House by a vote of 100-6, they never got a vote in a Senate committee. Ditto for a more modest bill that also never escaped the Senate Government Operations Committee.
This reform-adverse minority of politicians is one reason Michigan ranks as the nation’s worst state government for transparency, earning a failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity’s most recent report, released in December 2015. Michigan earned failing grades in both executive and legislative accountability, as well as an “F” in public access to information.
But there is reason for hope.
Last month, a bipartisan group of 60 House members, some veterans and some newcomers, introduced a modified version of the original LORA as House Bills 4148-4157. With 110 members in the House, this majority bodes well for swift reconsideration and passage. We hope the measures rocket through to unanimous passage in the House.
In a similar effort in the Senate, Senate Bill 83 was introduced by six senators. It would require legislators to be covered under FOIA. Unfortunately, the bill was referred to the Senate Government Operations Committee, where other FOIA bills died last year without any debate. In the interest of open government, the same should not be allowed to happen this year. These bills would remove the curtain of secrecy that shrouds backroom deals and corruption, make legislators more accountable to their constituents and bring Michigan in line with other states.
The tragedy of the Flint water crisis could have come to public light months earlier were emails and memos in the executive branch tied to the governor’s office disclosed when citizens and media started asking questions. Gov. Rick Snyder, to his credit, released many of those records. But there is no way to know if all have been released. There also is no way to guarantee that a future governor would do the same.
Michigan is the only state that statutorily exempts the governor and lieutenant governor from the requirements of public disclosure of records under FOIA. Though the original 1976 FOIA statute included the legislature, a 1986 attorney general’s opinion said the opposite, and the Legislature has used it to exempt its members from disclosure ever since.
In January, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told a group of journalists at the Michigan Press Association annual meeting, “You guys are the only people who care about this (FOIA).” He’s wrong about that, as we at the Michigan Coalition for Open Government know from our interactions with many citizens throughout the state. The people deserve better.
We challenge the state’s lawmakers to make Michigan a leader in transparency, openness and accountability by swiftly passing HBs 4148-4157, and for Gov. Snyder to sign these bills into law. At the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, we pledge to watch closely and report what occurs to the people of Michigan. March 12-18 may be Sunshine Week, but openness and transparency in the people’s governments is something to safeguard all 52 weeks of the year.