The Flint water crisis and a sex scandal surrounding two former lawmakers may not have been the catalyst for a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to agree that more transparency in state government is timely and necessary, but those crises have heightened the need to open up lawmakers and the governor’s office to disclosure of records.
During Sunshine Week, which advocates for more transparency in government, a group of 37 legislators introduced a package of 10 bills that would open up the governor's office and the Legislature to open records laws. Right now, both bodies are exempt from Freedom of Information laws.
The bills would create the Legislative Open Records Act or LORA and would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
“I had an interesting experience Monday when a young lady who works in the FOIA department for a police department asked: ‘Why is a rape victim subject to FOIA and my legislator is not?’ ” said state Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, the sponsor on some of the bills in the package. “It’s a good reason to move this forward.”
The bill would exempt a significant amount of records including letters to and from constituents, unless the constituent is a lobbyist; human resources files; ongoing internal or legislative investigations or litigation; advisory communications within the public body or between public bodies; trade commercial or financial records, communication regarding the bill drafting done by the Legislative Services Bureau and records maintained by the legislative caucuses.
“We have legislators on all sides of this issue,” said state Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. “Some believe everything should be open no matter what and others who feel we have to protect the confidentiality of constituents. So all the exemptions that we’ve identified address any issue that would protect the constituent but also protect the public’s right to know.”
Legislation has been introduced to subject the Legislature and the governor’s office to FOIA laws every legislative session for years, including in March 2015 by Moss. But this is one of the first times that so many legislators have signed on to the package. The Flint water crisis and the controversy surrounding former state Reps. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, and Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, who were forced from office in September after their extramarital affair and bizarre cover-up was revealed, has helped bring attention to the issue.
When the Flint water crisis started heating up earlier this year, Gov. Rick Snyder agreed to release his personal e-mails and eventually released thousands of e-mails relating to the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint from the entire executive branch.
“They’ve heightened the sensitivity to these issues of lack of transparency,” Moss said, noting the state has received a grade of F when it comes to issues of transparency and is one of only two states in the nation where public records disclosure doesn’t apply to the Legislature or governor.
The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked Michigan last in November when it comes to issues of transparency and ethics.
“Transparency is not a partisan issue. Government should set the example for honesty and transparency,” said state Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. “Any elected official who opposes transparency is unfit to hold public office.”
The legislation, however, faces an uncertain future. Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said the bills are worth looking at, but that the legislation will “undoubtedly see revisions.”
And Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said the Senate already makes documents available regarding the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
The bills — HB 5469-5479 — would: subject the governor to FOIA; create LORA to subject the Legislature to FOIA; and appoint the Legislative Council Administrator, instead of the courts, to resolve disputes when a record is not released.