Transparency still lacking at the state level
It's no secret that for the last two years, since Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won the office, and the state legislature, held by Republicans, have been at each other's throats. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear for everyone to see, with whatever stance Whitmer has taken, Senate Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have pivoted to the other foot. They can't even agree if armed protesters at the U.S. or Michigan Capitol are rioters or demonstrators.
So it's definitely refreshing to have heard new Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) urging transparency in government as a top priority for this legislative session. In his first speech, Wentworth said transparency is a top priority, and in mid-January House Republicans introduced ethics policies to “restore trust in government.” Part of the legislation would create a new conflict-of-interest policy for lawmakers, as well as limiting out of control lame duck sessions, by requiring a two-thirds approval to advance legislation following even-year elections. Michigan has long had a reputation as the state ranking among the worst in the country for government ethics and transparency laws. Included in that is a protection from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the governor and legislative branch – meaning they have a cloak of invisibility from its own public.
Michigan is just one of two states where its executive and legislative branches are excluded from FOIA – the basis of which is to ensure informed citizens, and is a vital function of a performing democratic society. Enacted in 1967, FOIA is described as the “law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under FOIA unless it falls under an exemption which protects interests such as personal privacy, national security and law enforcement.
We applaud Wentworth's remarks regarding transparency and ethics, and we couldn't agree more. We look forward to bipartisan support on the legislation – because not only are they important, but they're sensible – and shrewd. Very important hallmarks not only for bills, but for legislative leaders.
Here is our more important concern. This is not the first time – or second or third – that legislative bills have been introduced, and even passed, in the state House demanding transparency and ethics, only to fail to find footing in the state Senate, where many a bill has been known to die. As recently as September 15, 2020, the Senate Oversight Committee took up Senate Bills 833 through 842 – mirrored by House Bills 4007 through 4016 – to make the governor's office subject to FOIA for the first time, and create the Legislative Open Records Act to make the Legislature subject to FOIA, in what would become the Freedom of Information and Legislative Open Records Act. Among the bills sponsors were state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Oak Park), who introduced them in March of 2020, along with Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), former Sen. Pete Lucido (R-St. Clair Shores), Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Bloomfield Township), Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills) and Sen. James Runestad (R-White Lake).
The bills were all tie-barred, meaning one of the bills could not become law unless they all did.
Despite wide bipartisan sponsorship and support, including from the Michigan Press Association, ACLU, Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Council on Governments, Shirkey refused to bring the bills up for a vote, so they died in committee along with the legislative session – leaving Wentworth, and presumably the state senators, to begin again. There is every indication that Whitmer, like her predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed a cybersecurity FOIA exemption bill into law and released some of his emails in 2016 regarding the Flint Water Crisis after calls for transparency, would sign bills opening the government to greater transparency.
The rhetoric sounds great on Wentworth's part. Perhaps he is sincere and will push for its passage. But unless someone pushes Shirkey to bring it to a vote – and get it passed – in the Senate, it's just words. Words that are hollow, once again, to the public lawmakers are elected to serve.