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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan Democrats vowed transparency reforms. Now, they say maybe next year

capitol dome
Michigan Democrats say they are working on government transparency bills but don’t anticipate approval this year (ehrlif /
  • Ten months in with new majorities, Michigan Democrats have yet to introduce promised public records and lobbying reforms
  • Key lawmakers say they are working on bills but do not expect passage until next year, at the earliest
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised public records access in 2018 but has expressed concern with recent proposals

LANSING — Michigan is poised to end the year the same way it began: As one of only two states to fully exempt both the governor’s office and Legislature from public records requests by citizens, reporters and other watchdogs.

Lawmakers are racing to finalize required personal financial disclosure rules, which the Legislature must finalize by the end of this year under a ballot measure voters approved in 2022.


But Democrats are punting on other promised transparency reforms until at least next year, including expansion of the Freedom of Information Act and tighter lobbying rules.


Democrats who took full control of state government in January have done plenty, passing major pro-union laws to repeal Right-to-Work and ending the so-called retirement tax

But promises have gone nowhere to improve Michigan’s failing grade for government transparency and close the “revolving door” of outgoing lawmakers immediately taking jobs as lobbyists. 

“Each of these pieces requires a tremendous amount of research and time and thought,” Rep. Erin Byrnes, chair of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee, told Bridge Michigan. “So anything that we introduce, we want to make sure that it has been vetted, that it has been well thought-out and thoroughly researched.”

That’s a change from March, when Senate Democrats told Bridge there was “new energy” and the majority was “in a position to really get this done” this year.

The inaction follows corruption convictions and probes in Michigan, where former House Speaker Lee Chatfield remains under investigation for alleged financial improprieties and sexual assault, and former Speaker Rick Johnson was recently sentenced to 55 months in prison for taking lobbyist bribes from marijuana licenses. Both are Republicans.

“For whatever reason, transparency does not seem to be at the top of the Democrats’ list,” said Rep. Mike Harris, R-Waterford Township, who proposed a personal financial disclosure bill in March as part of a broader package that would have also expanded the Freedom of Information Act and reformed lobbying rules. 

“We could have been working on this the entire year, but the public has just been pushed to the side.”

State Rep. Bill G. Schuette, a Midland Republican and the son of Michigan’s former attorney general, echoed that frustration. 

“The fact there's just been so much inaction, and now they're acting surprised, is frankly disappointing,” he said. 

Schuette in March introduced legislation that would subject the governor and lawmakers to public records requests. Democrats haven’t acted on the bills. In fact, the House Ethics and Oversight Committee has not even met since June. 

Byrnes, who chairs the committee, scoffed at the criticism, noting Republicans had full control of state government several times over the past 40 years but failed to enact the laws they now claim to be clamoring for. 

The Republican transparency bills are largely reintroduced versions of legislation that failed in prior years, Byrnes said, telling Bridge that Democrats are not interested in “copying someone else’s homework.” 

“We are taking this very seriously,” she said, noting Democrats are working on new versions of FOIA, lobbying reform and other transparency bills.

Senate House Elections and Ethics Chair Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, is helping lead the effort to expand the Freedom of Information Act by making the governor and lawmakers subject to public records requests. 

He is, once again, working with Republican state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. The duo first introduced bipartisan FOIA expansion legislation in 2015 and hope to unveil a revised version still this year.

“I've never felt more confident about getting this thing done,” Moss said, noting that Senate Republicans who repeatedly blocked House-approved expansion bills no longer control the chamber. 

But Republicans have not been the only obstacle. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has questioned prior versions of the bipartisan legislation because they would treat her office differently than the Legislature, which would be subject to a separate Legislative Open Records Act. 

As part of her winning 2018 campaign, Whitmer promised to voluntarily extend the Freedom of Information Act to her own office if lawmakers did not do so. She also proposed "tough new lobbying rules," including a five-year ban on lawmakers immediately going to work as lobbyists after leaving elected office.

Five years later, Whitmer has not opened her office to public records requests, and did not identify any transparency legislation as a top fall priority this year. 


Whitmer has, however, expressed optimism she’ll find common ground on public records access with new Democratic majorities in Lansing. 

I think we'll get it done," she told Axios Detroit in May, five months ago. 

Moss acknowledged that “the governor’s office has expressed concerns” with prior versions of his FOIA expansion legislation but said he and McBroom are studying public records laws in other states to see if they can make adjustments. 

"We are in communication with the governor's office. We're not doing this in a silo. And we're not trying to jam anyone with a product that can't get signed into law," Moss said. 

"Where we land, I think will be a product that will work for those who are requesting these documents. And that's the goal here."

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