Editorial: Whitmer waffles on government transparency

The Detroit News

As a candidate for governor, Gretchen Whitmer rightly made a big deal about Michigan’s lack of government transparency and accountability. She said she’d work on fixing those shortfalls. But now as governor, she’s taken some actions contrary to that mission. 

While making her 147 vetoes to the budget, she also axed a longstanding provision that protects government whistleblowers from punishment if they express concerns over fraud or abuse in their respective state departments to the Legislature. And she removed the language where it appeared 13 times, so it wasn’t an oversight. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, to discuss her priorities for a potential supplemental spending bill.

This is the language she nixed: “A department or state agency shall not take disciplinary action against an employee for communicating with a member of the Legislature or his or her staff.”

When Whitmer was in the Legislature, in both the House and Senate, she regularly signed off on these protections. That, combined with her pro-sunshine in government stance, makes this move particularly puzzling. 

We’re of the opinion that the less secrecy in government, the better. And she seemed to be on board with that. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, would also prefer to see the whistleblower language put back in. And he should push for that during continuing negotiations between GOP legislative leaders and the governor over a supplemental budget. 

“A lot of Michigan families are losing faith in their government after the governor targeted so many vulnerable people in her budget cuts,” Chatfield says. “Attacking whistleblower protections and creating a culture of fear for honest employees is only going to make things worse and further undermine the people’s trust.” 

The governor defends her action, saying she supports whistleblower protections that exist in state law, but says these additional measures violate the state constitution. 

"As state courts have affirmed, one branch of government cannot provide oversight for another branch in personnel matters," says Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. "Moreover, as the attorney general also concluded, these provisions violate the Constitution’s rule against a law carrying out a purpose not encompassed in the law’s title."  

Tori Sachs, executive director of Michigan Rising Action, says this is another example of how the governor has flip-flopped on various issues, and that Whitmer "views policy through the lens of what is politically expedient for herself rather than what's best for Michigan." 

Whitmer killed roughly $1 billion from the budget in hopes of bringing Republicans to the table on more of her priorities, but that hasn’t happened, and the only ones who’ve been hurt in the budget war are vulnerable citizens — including charter school students and families with autistic children. 

More:Michigan budget breakdown: Spending up $1.7B, but roads, higher ed cut

More:Editorial: Protect vulnerable in budget battle

Lawmakers have introduced a supplemental spending plan that would restore some of that essential funding, but are waiting for assurances from Whitmer that she won’t hoodwink them by moving around some of the money within state departments, as she already did with more than $600 million in budget appropriations. 

Republican leadership ought to also push for a return of the whistleblower  protections, that had been supported by former Govs. Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder. 

Michigan already ranks dead last in the country for its terrible record on government transparency and accountability, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. 

To set the right tone, Whitmer started the year with a slew of executive directives aimed at promoting more accountability and ethical guidelines among state employees. 

“State government must be open, transparent and accountable to Michigan taxpayers,” Whitmer said in January, regarding her six rules.

It’s hard to see how getting rid of these whistleblower protections fits in with that agenda.