Column: Is it Sunshine Week or Groundhog Day in Michigan?

Mar 14, 2022 at 10:47 am
click to enlarge Michigan Capitol graphic. - Susan J. Demas
Susan J. Demas
Michigan Capitol graphic.

It’s March in Michigan. The days are getting longer, the weather is slightly warmer and many of us are making plans for how we will fill those beautiful Michigan spring and summer days. You could say we’re longing for sunshine.

This also means Sunshine Week is upon us. For those who are unfamiliar, Sunshine Week happens in mid-March every year, as it has since 2005, to promote transparency laws and open government.

In Michigan, this occasion is often marked by promises of more transparency from our lawmakers in Lansing. You’re likely to see editorials (much like this one), Facebook posts, video messages and maybe even some bills being introduced or given committee hearings about bringing more transparency and accountability to Michigan government.

You’ll see Republicans and Democrats alike come together to talk about the need for greater access to public records — and they are not wrong. Michigan ranks dead last in ethics and transparency and is one of only two states that exempts the Legislature and the governor’s office from state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws. But if the past is an indicator of the future, the Michigan Legislature won’t get too far past the talking phase.

In fact, for the past eight years, since I took over as the executive director of Progress Michigan, we have worked with legislators and called for FOIA reform. And for the past eight years, without exception, the Legislature has failed to deliver any reform.

Last year may have been the closest we’ve been to seeing something pass the Legislature, but even then, it was not without major flaws. Progress Michigan supported efforts to take even baby steps forward, but then opposed the final versions of the bills because they offered a different level of transparency for the Legislature than any other public body. The bills would have extended full FOIA to the governor’s office — a move we 100% support and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer herself has called for — but created a special “FOIA” lite for the Legislature. I remarked at the time it was what you would get if you ordered FOIA reform from Wish.com.

We badly need transparency and ethics reform in Michigan, and the first step in that process is opening the governor’s office and Legislature up to full FOIA. Progress Michigan announced a ballot measure in 2020 that would do just that. No excessive carve-outs, no special exemptions, just common-sense changes to the FOIA law to make it better and make our government more transparent. You can read more about what we’ve proposed and join our efforts at CloseLansingLoopholes.com.

We’ve determined that due to timing challenges with collecting signatures, we will not pursue the 2022 ballot with these changes. But we fully intend to put this reform forward for 2024. We’re giving the Legislature one last chance to make good on all the words you’re about to hear and read about how committed they are to transparency before taking the issue directly to the voters.

We’re about to see if it’s Sunshine Week or Groundhog Day.

Originally published by Michigan Advance. It is republished here with permission.

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