Legislation to subject the legislature and governor to the Freedom of Information Act is back, and more than half of the 110-member House of Representatives is supporting it.
The Michigan House of Representatives last session overwhelmingly passed legislation looping the Governor and legislature into open records laws, and the legislation is back this time around, with the support of more than half of state representatives.
"The people of Michigan are demanding transparency. The House of Representatives intends to deliver it to them," said Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering at a press conference unveiling the legislation on Wednesday.
He and Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield are leading the package of bills. They were joined at the press conference by more than 60 lawmakers, including many freshmen lawmakers, House Speaker Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, and House Democratic Leader Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.
The legislation the group announced mirrors legislation Moss and Chatfield worked on with former Rep. Ed McBroom last session, subjecting the Governor to the existing Freedom of Information Act and establishing a separate Legislative Open Records Act that covered the legislative branch.
That legislation passed by a wide majority, with most bills in the package passing 100-6.
But the legislation hit a roadblock in the Senate, where it was referred to Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof's, R-West Olive, Government Operations Committee. It never got a hearing, and Meekhof declared the legislation dead before the lame-duck session ended.
House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said he'd spoken with Meekhof, and his primary concerns last year were around the privacy of constituent contacts with lawmakers. Leonard said he believed the legislation addressed that.
Moss and Chatfield are happy to meet with Senators on the legislation, they said. Moss added that constituent contacts were addressed in the legislation, in his opinion, and it was one of the things they spent the most time on last year.
Moss pointed out that the handful of lawmakers who had voted against the legislation in 2016 were third-term lawmakers. He and Chatfield pointed to a big appetite for expanding FOIA among new lawmakers who joined the body in January.
"This is one of those things that, whether you were a Democrat or a Republican on the 2016 campaign trail, you were talking about transparency. And this is the first big bipartisan step to actually push that forward," Moss said.
Rep. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, said he heard about the issue starting in the primary and running up through the general election. He previously served as a county commissioner, where all of his information was subject to FOIA.
"When you do a job for the public you need to be open and they need to know who you are," VanderWall said.
Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said his constituents live between 350 and 500 miles from the state capitol. It's not a quick trip, and it's not
"For us Yoopers it's incredibly important... we feel geographically isolated and to not have the sunshine shining into the capitol and the governor's office makes us Yoopers feel as though the government might not be working towards our best interests," LaFave said.
Michigan ranked dead last in the nation for accountability in a 2015 report issued by the Center for Public Integrity, which took the state's lack of FOIA into account.
Groups outside of the legislature praised the introduction of the legislation on Wednesday.
"Michigan currently ranks at the bottom of all states when it comes to fighting corruption and giving people access to information. We are glad to see the State House come together in a bipartisan way to act, but there is simply no excuse for the way Republicans in the State Senate blocked these bills last session. The public has a right to demand accountability from their elected officials. The time to crack down on secrecy in government is now," said Dan Farough, a spokesman for the transparency group Common Cause Michigan.
Also calling for swift action was the Michigan Democratic Party.
"Democrats have been fighting for a long time to end the secrecy and behind-closed-door decision-making that have been the hallmarks of Republican-controlled state government. I am pleased House Republicans have decided to join us in this effort. We call for these bills to be acted on immediately and sent to the State Senate where the real fight for transparency and accountability can begin," said Chair Brandon Dillon.