Michigan House votes 109-0 to open Legislature, governor to public records requests
Lansing — The Michigan House voted unanimously Thursday to subject the governor and Legislature to public records requests — a vote that could end Michigan's run as one of two states to exempt both of the bodies from disclosure requirements.
The bills head next to the Michigan Senate, where they have failed to garner support in past sessions, even as a liberal advocacy group has proposed a separate ballot initiative that it says goes further than the pending legislation in opening the offices to scrutiny.
House members argued the legislation was sorely need to restore public trust in state government at a time when that trust is at an all-time low.
"This is a long overdue package, and it's not perfect, and we still have a lot of work to do to rebuild the public’s trust," said Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit. "But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers recognized the importance of the legislation, House Speaker Jason Wentworth said.
“One of our top priorities is to regain the trust of the people of the state and this is a strong start," the Farwell Republican said. "They deserve access to the records of their elected officials, and we intend to give it to them.”
The bipartisan, 10-bill package would subject the governor, lieutenant governor and executive staff to the state Freedom of Information Act and create a separate statute, the Legislative Open Records Act, under which the Legislature would be subject to public records requests.
The proposal would create a filing and appeals process that includes fee guidelines, response periods, the designation of a "LORA coordinator" to respond to requests, as well as a "Legislative Council administrator" to handle appeals.
The legislation includes many exemptions for lawmakers and the governor, including communication with constituents, with the exception of lobbyists; personal or medical information or communication of an "advisory nature"; records pertaining to an ongoing internal investigation; and communication that falls under attorney-client privilege.
The group Progress Michigan plans to gather signatures on a separate petition that would subject the Legislature and governor to public records requests, arguing that the Legislature's plan doesn't go far enough.
Progress Michigan's proposal, which would appear on the 2022 ballot, would allow a member of the public to appeal to the courts for release of a record instead of a "LORA coordinator" or "Legislative Council administrator."
Others have criticized a broad exemption within the proposed law that would withhold documents created, owned, or used by the majority or minority caucuses, which could shield a large swath of documents from disclosure. The exemption for constituent communication also could have broad applications in the governor's office since, technically, any resident in the state is a constituent.
Whitmer's office has not indicated support or opposition for the bill. But the governor campaigned on promises to issue an executive directive subjecting her own office to public records requests if the Legislature failed to do so. She has yet to issue such an executive directive.
Whitmer told WDET's Stephen Henderson Thursday she had already disclosed her financial information, travel records and schedules, but said she was waiting on the Legislature to make changes to public records law.
"It’s absolutely crucial that the Legislature is subject to it, as well, and that’s why I’ve withheld," Whitmer said. "In order to do this right, we need to codify this into statute.”
Also speaking to Henderson on Thursday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson criticized the legislation.
"In some ways, we also want to avoid a scenario where it appears that the box has been checked that FOIA extension has been put into law, but it actually has a lot of loopholes in it. It doesn’t actually give access to the information," Benson said.
But Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the 2018 ballot initiative to create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, applauded the House's passage of the package.
"With unanimous support in the House, now is the time for the Senate to take quick action to pass these reforms to make our government more transparent," said Nancy Wang, executive director for Voters Not Politicians. "We're mobilizing thousands of Voters Not Politicians volunteers to contact their legislators to make sure they follow through this time."