Howes: Shine more light on Michigan government

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the battle for dead last, Michigan wins again.

Not for a cornerstone auto industry once teetering on the edge of collapse. Or for its largest city, now past the ignominy of municipal bankruptcy. Or for its largest public school system, which is not far behind.

This one’s worse — if you embrace the premise that the people financing government in Michigan have a right to know what government is doing with their money. Here they mostly don’t, according to a Center for Public Integrity survey published last November that bestowed an “F” grade and ranked Michigan last nationwide for transparency and ethics in government.

“The bottom includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming,” the survey’s authors wrote, “but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.”

This is shameful, and it’s no way to run a government. Nor is it particularly effective for instilling confidence in an electorate justifiably predisposed to assuming all politicians are in business to enrich and empower their cronies, their donors and themselves.

And people wonder why outsiders named Trump and Sanders are reshaping presidential politics this election cycle, why the failures of government in Flint and Detroit, Lansing and Washington, elicit so much cynicism. It’s easily fomented by a system whose rules are biased too often to secrecy and tilted in favor of the governors at the expense of the governed.

Enter a 10-bill package that would create the Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA, and would end exemptions to the state Freedom of Information Act by the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office and the Legislature. If there’s a time for a bipartisan push for something like this, it’s now.

Case in point: the Flint water crisis. The Snyder administration so far has released more than 43,000 pages of emails and other documents. The dumps have helped the news media, state and federal investigators, interested lawmakers and everyday citizens shape a fairly common narrative of bureaucratic failure writ large.

They show state departments clinging to arcane processes despite clear evidence of Flint’s calamitous water switch. They show the federal Environmental Protection Agency beginning to understand the problem, but choosing to slow-walk fixes. They show the Snyder administration’s inner circle understanding that Flint’s water could be contaminated with lead, and possibly connected to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, but unable to shift confusion into action.

But more than 20,000 of the 43,000 pages were technically exempt from disclosure, according to a source close to the situation — an exemption Gov. Rick Snyder decided to waive and to release the documents because intense political pressure and public interest left him little choice.

The bills dropped last week in the Legislature propose to severely curtail that exemption, save particular exceptions for litigation, personnel and documents detailing communication with constituents. The bills also would correct a glaring hypocrisy: the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and state lawmakers would be subject to the same scrutiny already trained on Michigan mayors, council members, county commissioners and other local public officials.

It’s time. The Flint water crisis and the Detroit bankruptcy, the Legislature’s Courser-Gamrat sex scandal and the so-called Rasco fiasco in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s era, the debate on a financial rescue of Detroit Public Schools — all demonstrate the need for greater transparency into the deliberations and decision-making of Michigan’s deciders.

The public should tolerate no less. Despite evidence of a “comeback” — fueled some by solid public policy but more by a recovering auto industry, comparatively low energy prices and a national economy still depressing interest rates — Michigan continues to lag its peers in too many critical areas affecting the race to land mobile capital and jobs.

Not good enough. As wounded as Snyder is by the Flint water crisis and persistent questions about his leadership, the governor is mobilizing the machinery of state government behind an “action plan” that does more to address short- and longer-term needs in Flint than political grandstanding on the presidential campaign trail and the congressional committee room.

To the extent it would do any good, Snyder should join a bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders to strongly back the transparency package beginning to make its way through the state capitol. A lesson of Flint is that damage stands a better chance of being contained if average folks can access government information, expose it and wield it effectively.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.