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Michigan House passes transparency plan fourth time. Will Senate finally act?

Michigan is one of two states along with Massachusetts to exempt the governor and Legislature from open records requests. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — The Michigan House on Thursday unanimously approved legislation that would open the governor’s office and Legislature to public records requests, advancing a “Sunshine Week” package that has repeatedly died on the vine in the Senate. 

Michigan is one of only two states in the nation that fully exempts the executive and legislative branches from its Freedom of Information of Act, which requires state departments and local governments to provide documents upon request and administrative fee payment.

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Thursday marked the fourth time in five years that the House has approved bills to expand the law, and the third straight time the vote has been unanimous, with support from Democrats and Republicans alike. 

The Senate, however, has never taken up the government transparency plan, dooming it in each of the past three sessions. The bills have ended on the trash heap, alongside other open government reform proposals like personal financial disclosure requirements for state officials.

But in trying again on Thursday, House Republicans argued the legislation is especially important given recent confidential severance payouts by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office that were exposed through public records requests to state departments.

“These are crucial measures to ensure that no branch of government is able to hide the truth in the manner we’ve seen in recent weeks,” said Rep. Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes. “It’s an embarrassment to our state government that we cannot get this passed.”

Senate Majority Leader MIke Shirkey, R-Clarklake, blocked similar bills in the 2019-2020 session, raising concerns the plan could “discourage negotiations, discourage conversation” in Lansing despite exemptions designed to shield legislator communications with constituents and within party caucuses.

Former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, was a vocal opponent of the plan and killed two separate House packages.  

Bipartisan backers are optimistic for final passage this year because a supermajority of senators are now on record having co-sponsored similar bills or voted for them in the House.

They’re working to convince Shirkey, but the GOP leader has given no indication of where he now stands on the bills, other than a promise to “review” them once they reach the Senate floor. 

“I’m always willing to give full consideration to any effort to promote accountability of elected officials to their constituents,” Shirkey said earlier this month in a statement. “I’ll also weigh the potential for unintended consequences for personal communications, constituent concerns and the negotiations that go into passing laws.”

Asked by Bridge Michigan if his position has changed, Shirkey’s office had no additional comment on Thursday. 

The proposal would subject the governor’s office to the Freedom of Information Act but create a separate Legislative Open Records Act for the Legislature. As a candidate in 2018, Whitmer pledged to open her office up to FOIA voluntarily if lawmakers did not send her a bill to do so, but she has not followed through more than two years into her term.

The public records plan is supported by a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Michigan Press Association. 

But it’s also faced pushback from critics who say it includes too many “loopholes” and exemptions for the Legislature.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has criticized the plan because it would not allow citizens to sue the Legislature over a wrongful denial. And liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan this week bashed a provision that could allow lawmakers to delete emails before they are considered public records, promising a separate ballot initiative without any “carve-outs.”

But Democrats in the state House called the legislation a significant step toward rebuilding trust in government and improving the state’s failing grade on transparency and ethics laws.  

“If the people are truly to hold the power in our government, then the people deserve to know how we operate,” said Rep. Darrin Camilerri, D-Brownstown Township. “None of us who have served in this public body should consider ourselves above basic accountability measures. We should all be willing to shine that light on the inner workings of this institution.”

Senate Oversight Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, is championing identical bills in the upper chamber with sponsoring Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.  The committee heard testimony Tuesday and is expected to vote next week.

Still, the legislations’ fate in the upper chamber remains uncertain, with the votes “balanced on the edge of a knife,” McBroom said this week. 

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