Not so fast: Michigan senate leader challenges transparency bills
Despite the Michigan House of Representatives’ unanimous vote last week to expand the state’s public records laws under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the outlook for improving transparency — in one of the least transparent states in the country — is questionable.
Michigan is just one of just two states in the nation exempting its governor’s records from public review. The 10-bill package that passed 108-0 on March 16 would — among other minor administrative housekeeping — open the governor’s office to public records requests and create an appeal process for those that were denied.
“We shouldn’t be satisfied that 48 other states have figured out how to make transparency work,” said Democratic state Rep. Jeremy Moss. “We rank 50 out of 50 states by the Center of Public integrity. No one should boast that we run a transparent government.”
The House’s enthusiasm is not shared across the Senate. Republican Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof stands against the bills and wrote a guest column for the MLive website explaining why. In short, Meekhof explained that the state already has transparency laws that open the legislature and state budgets to public scrutiny.
The new laws would unnecessarily open email and other constituent correspondence to the public and lobbyists, he argued.
“If we circumvent the state constitution in order to score political points, there will be fewer and fewer talented and engaged people willing to run for office,” he wrote.
“I do not think political opponents should be able to review my calendar for their own gain,” he wrote. “I do not think my staff people deserve to have their personnel records scrutinized by the public simply because they work to serve the public.”
Sunlight Foundation open cities director Stephen Larrick pointed out that while some of the issues Meekhof raises are important, such as protecting the privacy of constituents who contact their legislators, the new legislation wouldn’t undermine the exemptions already protecting the state legislature. He added that where the governor’s office is concerned, the legislation is direly needed.
“It is absolutely necessary to have the executive branch and the chief of the executive branch be subject to FOIA,” Larrick said. “And I think the overwhelming majority of states that have those provisions are showing that democratic norm that transparency should be proportional to power.”
Michigan is joined by Massachusetts as the only states to close the governor’s office to public records requests. Meekhof makes no mention of this facet of the legislation in his editorial and when pressed in an email correspondence with StateScoop, his office did not comment on the matter directly.
Republican Sens. Rick Jones and Tonya Schuitmaker have in the past introduced similar bills that Meekhof has assigned to the Government Operations committee, which he chairs. There, the bills are either “quickly taken up or die,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
In Massachusetts, the governor’s office has historically stood behind a 1997 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling popularly known as Lambert, which held that the public records law did not expressly include the legislature, judiciary, or executive branches. Subsequently, any records released have been granted at the government’s discretion.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law An Act to Improve Public Records, which went into effect this year. The law calls for a records access officer to be appointed and creates a committee to investigate whether the current exemptions under FOIA should be repealed.