Editorial: Let the sunshine in

The Detroit News
High above the Lansing skyline, and pedestrians far below, workers begin erecting scaffolding as part of a multi-million dollar renovation project on the dome atop the Michigan Capitol.

Michigan lawmakers can start out the new year and their new legislative session on the right note by bringing more transparency to the work of government.

Bipartisan legislation to expand sunshine laws to cover both the executive and legislative branches was introduced this week. The state would extend the state's Freedom of Information Act to the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature.

Michigan is one of just two states that doesn't apply FOIA rules to all of its elected officials. As a result, the state consistently gets a failing grade for ethics from good government groups.

A bill introduced in the House would remove the exemptions on the governor and lieutenant governor, and create a new Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) to make nearly everything lawmakers do subject to public review. It would, as one sponsor, Daire Rendon, R-Lake City, says, "make the government more accountable to the people of Michigan."

Increasing accountability and transparency would be a fine early accomplishment. 

A similar bill was passed by the Republican-controlled House in the last session, but died in the Senate.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week put in place a number of rules expanding transparency for state agencies. Extending FOIA to cover all of government would supplement that effort. But it wouldn't complete it; more work is still needed to open up state government.

The Center for Public Integrity ranks Michigan dead last among states for safeguarding its public institutions against corruption. The lack of accountability is just part of the problem.

The center also gives Michigan an F for the management of its Civil Service system,  procurement process, lobbying disclosure rules, ethics enforcement and pension fund.

In each case, those functions of government are shrouded in too much secrecy. Lawmakers should pull back the curtain and handle the public's business as publicly as possible.

In addition, it should extend the Open Meetings Act to fully cover the state's public universities, which have been notorious for their secrecy.

Concerns have been raised that extending FOIA would expose the private business of constituents who communicate with the governor or their state lawmakers.

The new bill exempts certain constituent correspondence. It also continues to shield ongoing legislative investigations and lawsuits, and personnel files.

All other information will be public, and that's how it should be.

The new Republican leadership of the Senate should recognize that ranking dead last in government transparency and accountability hurts Michigan's competitiveness. 

This is a black mark the state could easily erase, starting with the passage of bills to extend sunshine rules to all branches and agencies of government.