The state House passed a package of bills Wednesday that for the first time in Michigan would subject the governor's office and the Legislature to state open records laws.
The Free Press reported in 2014 that Michigan was one of only two states in which both the governor and the Legislature have blanket exemptions from public records disclosure laws.
The bills — 10 in all — would expand the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to apply to the governor and his executive office staff and set up a new Legislative Open Records Act to apply to lawmakers and the Legislature.
"Without (open records) laws in place, the citizens have reason to be suspicious ... they have reason to have diminished trust in their government, in their leaders," Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, told fellow lawmakers before the vote.
"Help roll back the clouds of doubt and suspicion and build trust today."
State Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, another sponsor of the bipartisan package, said "being transparent in government in the front end is easier in the long run, because it removes all doubt."
Since the FOIA law was passed 40 years ago, "no one here is responsible" for the governor's office and Legislature being exempted. "But we all have the opportunity to fix it," he said.
A 2015 national study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked Michigan last among the 50 states for its transparency and ethics laws, partly as a result of the significant FOIA exemptions.
Most of the 10 bills in the package passed by votes of 100-6, with no votes cast by: Reps. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo; Paul Clemente, D-Lincoln Park; Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw; Earl Poleski, R-Jackson; Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, and Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia. House Bill 5473, dealing with appeal procedures, passed 99-7, with Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, also voting no. HB 5478, removing the FOIA exemption for the governor's office, also passed 99-7, with Clemente switching his vote from no to yes, and Reps. Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City, and Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, switching from yes to no.
The prospect for the package remains uncertain in the state Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has been lukewarm about the package.
The bills still exempt a fairly wide swath of information. For example, lawmakers would not have to disclose communications with constituents, other than lobbyists, and records held exclusively by the Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses would remain secret. The governor's office would not have to disclose certain records related to gubernatorial appointments, budget recommendations or pardons and commutations for convicts.
Also, the new laws would apply only to records created or possessed after next Jan. 1, when they are expected to take effect, if passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
Michigan's FOIA law already applies to other state agencies, as well as local governments, but not the judiciary.
Common Cause Michigan, a government transparency and watchdog group, called the House's action a good first step.
“The Michigan House has taken a good step forward in reforming the state’s outdated open records law," said Dan Farough, a spokesman for the group. "In the Flint water crisis, we have seen firsthand the disastrous consequences of what happens when the government is unaccountable and acts in secret."
Just as the bills received bipartisan support, reforming Michigan's open records laws has brought together groups that are frequently on opposite sides of public policy debates, such as the liberal group Progress Michigan and the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Both pushed for strengthening the state's FOIA law.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, called on House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, to "pressure his colleagues in the Senate to move this legislation to the governor’s desk," and show "this is more than a political stunt."
In addition to the 10-bill package of House Bills 5469 through 5478, the House is also considering HB 5826, prohibiting a public body that receives a public records request from launching a civil lawsuit against the person making the request.