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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan Democrats: We will deliver transparency reform. GOP dubious

Five months into full control of state government, Michigan Democrats say they’re developing plans to follow through on long-running transparency promises. From left: Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Michigan Democrats say they are developing plans for transparency, ethics reforms
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pledged to open her office to public records requests but has not done so
  • Republican leader pushes for earmark transparency, while another doubts Democrats

MACKINAC ISLAND — Michigan Democrats say they’re planning long-promised ethics and transparency reforms as lawmakers face a year-end deadline to finalize new personal financial disclosure rules for themselves.

And a leading Republican legislator is calling for reforms to a budget earmark process that both parties have used to fund pet projects, including a $25 million Clare health park grant the state paused to investigate potential wrongdoing. 

Those are among the platitudes offered at the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual gathering of political and business leaders that Bridge Michigan used to press lawmakers about the possibility of so-called good government reforms.


When Gretchen Whitmer ran for governor in 2018, she promised to voluntarily open her office to public records if lawmakers didn’t force her to. She didn’t in her first four years when the Republicans controlled the Legislature, and she hasn’t in the five months since fellow Democrats seized control of the House and Senate in January.

Michigan is one of two states that fully shields the governor’s office and legislature from records requests. That, despite requiring such disclosure from all local government officials, and despite a series of ongoing criminal investigations into actions by former lawmakers and other government officials. 

Whitmer has questioned previous GOP legislation that would have created a separate records request review process for the Legislature, but transparency remains a priority for the administration, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told Bridge Michigan. 

"We've been pretty consistent in terms of thinking that that is an important idea and thinking that there should be the same standard between the Legislature and the executive office," Gilchrist said. "I think we have an opportunity."

Michigan officials have little choice to finalize a new personal financial disclosure program designed to highlight any potential conflict of interests for the governor, lieutenant governor, Secretary of State, attorney general and all state lawmakers. 

Voters forced the issue last fall by approving Proposal 1, which will allow any Michigander to sue the Legislature and governor in the Michigan Supreme Court if the financial disclosure rules are not finalized by the end of the year. 

The constitutional amendment directs lawmakers to craft enabling legislation that must require elected officials to describe their assets, sources of income, liabilities, employment agreements, other positions, gifts and more. 

Democratic leaders told Bridge they intend to meet the year-end deadline for personal financial disclosure. 

If time allows, they may also pair that legislation with expansion of the Freedom of Information Act and other reforms, including a potential "cooling off" period that would prohibit lawmakers who leave office from immediately taking new jobs as lobbyists. 

"We'll move things individually if we have to, but (financial disclosure) might be part of a package," Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, told Bridge.

As Democrats develop Freedom of Information Act bills, Brinks said she wants to ensure public records requests are not "weaponized for partisan purposes." But she’s confident there is a way to hold the Legislature and governor's office to the same standard and alleviate any Whitmer concerns, she said.

"Other states do it, so we can do it," Brinks said. “There is a solution."

House Republicans proposed and passed public records expansion bills with bipartisan support each of the past three sessions. But the legislation repeatedly stalled in the Republican-led Senate amid opposition from then-Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who has since been forced out of office due to term limits. 

House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, voted for the previous public records legislation and noted his GOP colleagues re-introduced that plan in March as part of the national Sunshine Week.

But his bigger concern at the moment, Hall told Bridge, is the lack of transparency surrounding budget earmarks that lawmakers from both parties have routinely used to fund individual projects without public vetting or a traditional competitive bidding process.

He cited last year's deal between Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature included roughly $1 billion in targeted grants, including a $25 million secured by then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth to build a health and fitness park in his district. 

A former legislative aide to Wentworth created a nonprofit company and was awarded the grant, which the state suspended after discovering what officials call red flags. 

The state ordered an investigation into the grant by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, as Bridge reported last month. 

"I'd like to see us prohibit those projects going into (the budget) because it seems like they're creating more trouble than it's worth," Hall said.

Democrats contend they are being more transparent this year by proposing earmarks earlier in the annual budget process to allow for more scrutiny.

But Hall said lawmakers should attach their names to the earmarks from the start, so it's clear who is requesting the funding. And he suggested the money should only be distributed to local governments or agencies, not nonprofit or for-profit companies.

"Both parties have used (the earmarks), but I'm seeing the need for some reform there, and I compliment you for shining a light on some of those things that need to change," Hall told Bridge. 

Democrats have had a busy five months since winning full control of the state government. Among other things, they've expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-wage workers, repealed the state's Right-to-Work law for unions and approved new firearm regulations in an attempt to curb gun violence.

But they haven’t yet acted on transparency measures even though it’s something "we've talked about as Democrats for a long time," House Speaker Joe Tate acknowledged.

Expanding the Freedom of Information Act is "something that we certainly are going to look at this legislative session, in addition to all the other work we are doing," Tate, D-Detroit, told Bridge.  

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said he supports the concept of expanding the law to include the governor and Legislature but does not think Whitmer is actually interested in opening up her office.

"Put it on the board; let's vote for it," Nesbitt told Bridge. "Democrats have been using it for the last 12 years as a political football, and yet I've seen no action on it from them."

Outside of the Legislature, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told Bridge she is also pushing her Democratic allies to act on a series of potential ethics and transparency reforms, including an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.

"We should shine a light on the discussions that are happening in Lansing so that citizens can be fully informed about who's making decisions that affect them," Benson said. 

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