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Michigan ranks low in government transparency. Ballot drive would extend FOIA

Michigan capitol

LANSING — Michigan is saddled with a failing grade on government transparency as one of just two states that exempts the governor and legislators from public records requests, but voters could have the choice to change that in 2022 if lawmakers don’t do it first.

Progress Michigan on Monday announced plans for an initiative that will propose “full repeal” of exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act, which requires officials at all other levels of government to release emails and other documents to the public upon request.

Transparency advocates in the Michigan Legislature are expected to propose their own public records request legislation this month, but officials with the liberal advocacy group indicated they are tired of waiting for action in Lansing.

The Republican-House approved bills to ease transparency in 2017 and 2019, only to have them die in the Senate.

Progress Michigan will “try to keep the pressure” on legislators, but “we’ve seen this get rolled out time and time again only to die in (Majority Leader) Mike Shirkey’s Republican-controlled Senate,” Deputy Director Sam Inglot told Bridge Michigan. “We’re always going to be pushing transparency in Michigan.”

Gaping holes in the Michigan Freedom of Information Act are among the reasons the state ranked last in the country for ethics and transparency in 2015, according to a national review by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, voted to expand public records access in 2019 and has called government reform a top priority for 2021. He’s backing a new personal financial disclosure bill, and the House last week approved his plan to rein in the so-called lame-duck session by requiring supermajority votes to pass legislation after an election.

Shirkey has not yet indicated his position on those bills. 

Democratic Sen. Jeremy Moss of Southfield, who has been working with Republican Sen. Ed McBroom of Vulcan on public records legislation, said Monday that Shirkey and his team “have been looking at our efforts” are open to the discussion.

“I’m confident this would get out of the Senate if it were put up for a vote,” Moss said, adding he and McBroom have assembled “all the ingredients” to pass the legislation in Lansing without the need for a ballot proposal.

“I can understand the angst of people in the community not wanting to wait any longer for legislative delays,” Moss said. “I’m in that same spot.”

It’s not just Shirkey, though. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned in 2018 on a promise to expand FOIA and supported the 2019 legislation, but she has not done so voluntarily within her own office.

Last April, amid the pandemic, she riled some transparency advocates by issuing an executive order relaxing laws on government response times to information requests because of the pandemic. 

The Michigan Press Association has long pushed the governor and Legislature to expand the state’s public records request law, and public affairs manager Lisa McGraw said Monday she is not sure whether it will happen this year.

“I said last time I was optimistic,” McGraw said, referencing the 2019 proposal that stalled in the upper chamber. “I’ll believe it when I see it, with the Senate especially.”

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, was more pessimistic.

“Every year it’s the same story: bills with good intentions that don’t go quite far enough and include ludicrous carve-outs for the Legislature in an effort to bribe Republicans to support them, slowly die on the vine because of a lack of political will or commitment to real transparency in the Legislature,” he said in a statement.

“The public is sick of it, and we’re done playing games.”

Progress Michigan is expected to announce more details later this month during what is known as “Sunshine Week,” an annual initiative designed to inform the public about the importance of open government, along with the dangers of excessive or unnecessary secrecy.

Scott said the pending proposal “will not include carve outs” or special treatment for the Legislature, which distinguish it from the 2019 plan approved by the Michigan House that would have created a new “Legislative Open Records Act” instead of simply expanding FOIA.

To force a 2022 ballot proposal, Progress Michigan would have to collect at least 340,047 signatures from voters. The group launched a separate petition drive last year to reform Michigan lobbying laws but suspended that effort when COVID-19 pandemic hit the state and upended signature collection plans

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