Michigan FOIA expansion bills tweaked in committee


The House Competitiveness Committee is expected to act Thursday on bills expanding public records acts to the governor's office and legislature under new, tightened language.

Michigan is one of two states that currently does not subject the legislature or governor to its open records laws, which helped the it earn the bottom spot on a 2015 ranking of transparency among the states.

House Bills 4149 through 4157 would subject the Governor to the existing Freedom of Information Act and establish a separate Legislative Open Records Act that covered the legislative branch. It's a reintroduction of a package that died in the Senate last session.

One big change to House Bill 4155 amended the exemptions. As introduced, it would have exempted "Records or information subject to... rules adopted by a house of the legislature" from public disclosure under LORA.

It was a line that Michigan Press Association and others took issue with because it provided the House with an opportunity to create more exemptions. Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association said it left room for future legislatures to "erode" the spirit of the open records law.

But that was changed with a substitute the committee adopted, which eliminated the language. The substitute also made smaller changes. Correspondence between a lawmaker and his constituent has always been exempt from disclosure under the bills. But this amendment also shields correspondence from a citizen who mistakenly contacts the wrong lawmaker from disclosure.

One remaining issue the Michigan Press Association had was with the exception of "internet-use records," which McGraw said was overly broad language.

Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, is a lead sponsor of the bills and also chairs the committee. He said the bills helped Michigan be more transparent and accountable.

"I think this is a way to create access to our records and to rebuild trust in government that perhaps have been lost," Chatfield said.

Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, another leader and sponsor on the package, said it was appropriate the legislature was considering these bills at the beginning of session, when it typically spends some time on fixing prior laws.

"This is a fix. Unfortunately this fix is 40 years late," Moss said.

More than half of House members gathered in support of the bills' introduction, and it had broad support when it passed the House last session. But over in the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, remains cool on the proposal.

"I don't really think it's necessary," he said on Wednesday.

Chatfield said he expects the committee to vote on the bills Thursday afternoon. After that, they would go to the full House for consideration. The House and Senate would have to pass them, and they would have to be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, to become law.