Opinion: Shine a light into the capitol

Jeremy Moss
Assorted angles of the Capitol building in Lansing for stock, files, iconic, etc... use. (Dale G Young/The Detroit News) 2017.

Four years ago, two state legislators were rumored to be misusing state resources while covering up the affair they were having with each other.

This couldn’t be immediately proved, however, because reporters couldn’t access documents in their state offices that would reveal the details behind the cover-up.

That’s because Michigan is one of only two states that does not subject the governor or state legislators to the existing open records law called the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

At the time, in the fall of 2015, I was a freshman House Democrat determined to change this blind spot in the law and found an ally in a senior House Republican, then-Rep. Ed McBroom, who chaired the committee that led to the removal of our philandering colleagues from the Legislature.

As we were working on bills to remove this FOIA exemption, a substantial story broke — one that was much more significant than a minor political sex scandal — that thrust our work into the national spotlight: the Flint water crisis.

“Michigan is nearly alone in the nation in shielding the governor from Freedom of Information Act requests. You can use FOIA to get official documents and correspondence from almost every governor in the country, but not the governor in the state of Michigan,” MSNBC's Rachel Maddow reported in January 2016 while covering Flint and the difficulty in getting information out of state government officials.

These scandals — big and small — contributed to the reason why Michigan ranks dead last among all 50 states in government ethics according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity. Their report measured 13 functions of government and Michigan failed 10 of them, including public access to information, legislative accountability and executive accountability.

Due to this increasing scrutiny about the lack of government oversight at the time, McBroom and I were able to successfully push our transparency legislation through the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the Michigan Senate twice blocked the House-passed proposal, extinguishing the light we’re trying to shine on state government.

This year, however, things are different. It’s our best chance to push for real change.

McBroom and I are now both serving in the Senate, where we are ready to usher our bills through the upper legislative chamber after they were voted out of the House this past Tuesday. We’ve also gained a critical partner in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has sought to increase transparency in our state government even in these early days of her administration.

It simply amazes me that in just four years, our movement went from earning only a few champions in 2015 to being lauded by the governor in her State of the State address in 2019.

That’s because citizens on both the left and the right are demanding more control of their government, which has resulted in candidates from across the political divide running on a platform to fix our broken system. If we are truly going to be the change agents we said we would be, then a vote for government transparency should be an easy one for our state’s elected officials.

The time to let the sun shine on Michigan government is imminent, and it is on us to own that opportunity. We’ve built a bipartisan coalition committed to seeing this issue through — once and for all.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D–Southfield, represents Michigan's 11th District.