Bills opening Michigan Legislature, governor to records requests get elusive Senate hearing

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Transparency advocates in Michigan contend they're closer than before to subjecting the state Legislature and Governor's Office to open records requests after the previously resistant Senate scheduled a committee hearing this week on the matter.

Michigan is one of two states that wholly exempt the Legislature and Governor's Office from laws allowing the public to obtain government records. That's one reason Michigan ranked 50th nationally for transparency and systems to deter corruption in a 2015 study by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Tuesday. June 23, 2020.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the Senate Oversight Committee will take testimony on proposals to implement the changes that have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate the last two sessions.

"This is something that is going to shift the way legislators are scrutinized and the governor is scrutinized by the citizens of this state," said Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who has championed the proposals along with Senate Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

Moss labeled the bills "monumental" for the state in a Friday interview.

The proposals would remove the current exemption for the Governor's Office from the Freedom of Information Act and would create a "Legislative Open Records Act" to guide requests for lawmakers' documents.

The proposals' exemptions include communications between a legislator's office and a constituent and records held by the legislative caucuses. 

Similar proposals passed the GOP-controlled House in the 2015-16 session and the 2017-18 session only to stall in the Senate, where then-Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, was vehemently opposed to the change.

The Senate already puts the text of proposed bills online, holds public hearings on legislation and makes video of sessions available for the public online, and considers requests to view business leases and staff salary information, Meekhof said in 2017. He also warned that lobbyists could use the reform to read his emails to advantage their clients.

But the COVID-19 pandemic shows why access to public records is important, said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association. People should know about the steps the government is taking to respond to the virus, McGraw argued.

Term limits have forced Meekhof out of the Senate. The new Senate majority leader is Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who didn't respond Friday to a request for comment on the proposals.

The House has already approved bills in 107-0 votes in March 2019. McBroom, whose committee will consider the bills Tuesday, said he hasn't received a commitment that they will receive a vote before the full Senate.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, speaks about proposed legislation that would expand the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act during a press conference on Tuesday, June 4, 2019 at the state Capitol.

But Shirkey believes in good and accountable government, McBroom said. The Senate leader also wants to ensure the bills don't create more problems than they solve, he added.

"He’s watching it very carefully," McBroom said.

The changes won't uncover corruption in state government, he argued, but would show most legislative offices spend their time doing "mundane" things. Still, providing transparency will increase confidence in government, McBroom said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has previously voiced support for subjecting both the Legislature and governor's office to open records requests.