The Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a package of legislation that aims to expand transparency to the governor's office and legislature.
"When I first got elected and started serving I was surprised to learn that my office wasn't part of the Freedom of Information Act," said Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.
And in fact, most other states do subject the governor, lawmakers or both to FOIA. Michigan was ranked worse in the nation in a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity due in fact to these provisions.
What you'd get from his office is pretty dry, McBroom warned, but it was a basic level of scrutiny he believed should exist. And he found a counterpart with the same idea on the Democratic side of the chamber; Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.
Together with a series of bipartisan partners, the two embarked on a legislative mission to expand citizen access to information.
Introduced in March, the bills would subject the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and executive office employees to the current Freedom of Information Act. They would establish a new, partially parallel act under which citizens could request records from lawmakers and name it the Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA.
LORA, which closely mirrors FOIA, would set up a LORA coordinator to handle legislative records requests. But there are differences between what a requestor can get under LORA. For instance, a citizen cannot obtain interactions between a lawmaker and a constituent, records in the sole custody of the Republican or Democratic caucuses or records on internal investigations.
And while the Governor and Lieutenant Governor would be subject to FOIA they would enjoy some specific exemptions. Their offices wouldn't have to share records about appointments, decisions to remove an official, decisions on commutations or pardons or budget recommendations.
McBroom said that most of the exemptions were necessary to keep away from constitutional conflicts on the legislative end, and to acknowledge some of the governor's unique duties on the executive side.
Moss said he had complied with FOIA requests as part of a local government, and opening up the legislature would bring a level of transparency to the legislature.
"What does it say of us when we don't even open ourselves up to the minimum amount of scrutiny from the public?" Moss asked.
Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the exemptions for the governor and legislature were out of step with open records laws in other states. This was a fix, he said.
"I think we all know that Michigan's legislature and governor never should have been exempted in the first place," Chatfield said.
Most of the bills passed 100-6, though some passed on a slightly smaller margin. The six lawmakers who opposed many of the bills were Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo; Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford; Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw; Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson; Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac; and Rep. Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia.
They head next to the Senate for consideration.
Common Cause Michigan, an advocacy group for government transparency, praised the House's action in a press release on Tuesday.
"The Michigan House has taken a good step forward in reforming the state's outdated open-records law. In the Flint water crisis, we have seen firsthand the disastrous consequences of what happens when the government is unaccountable and acts in secret," said Dan Farough, spokesman on behalf of Common Cause Michigan.