Dems, Republicans push FOIA and ethics reforms during Sunshine Week

Michigan is one of only two states that does not allow FOIA to apply to the executive and legislative branches of state government

Mar 15, 2023 at 9:06 am
click to enlarge In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan dead last among all states in the nation when it came to ethics, accountability and transparency in government operations. - Shutterstock
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In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan dead last among all states in the nation when it came to ethics, accountability and transparency in government operations.

Legislative leaders from both parties this week unveiled Sunshine Week proposals in efforts to increase government transparency.

Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors — now known as the News Leaders Association — the partnership with The Society of Professional Journalists highlights access to public information and the role a free press plays in our democracy.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Democratic state officials, including Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, kicked off Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote open government, by outlining priorities, which include implementing a voter-passed financial disclosure proposal and making progress on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform.

Moss made the case that new Democratic majorities could deliver long-delayed transparency measures.

“I’ve been a staunch transparency advocate during Sunshine Week year after year, but it hits a little different now as chair of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee. I feel the weight of this new responsibility and am prepared to deliver,” Moss said. “As with our other policy priorities that legislative Democrats have moved quickly to enact, we built a Wish List of important government accountability reforms over many years. We finally have the opportunity to implement them, and lawmakers are working closely together to make that happen.”

Moss says his top priority remains expanding FOIA, noting that Michigan is one of only two states that does not allow FOIA to apply to the executive and legislative branches of state government. Recent attempts to subject the Legislature and governor to open records requests passed on a bipartisan basis in the GOP-controlled House, but stalled out in the GOP-led Senate.

Democrats are vowing that will change this session as they push for it to finally be signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan dead last among all states in the nation when it came to ethics, accountability and transparency in government operations.

“While the interest in these reforms may not be new, the ability to actually achieve them certainly is, especially as abuses of power and ethical questions continue to arise related to previous legislatures and administrations,” he said.

On the GOP side, House members on Tuesday also laid out a legislative package aimed at increasing government transparency but blamed Democrats for the lack of progress.

“This is the fifth Sunshine Week of Gov. Whitmer’s administration, but we’ve yet to see her act on any of her campaign promises,” said Rep. Bill G. Schuette (R-Midland). “House Republicans are done waiting. We are leading the way to deliver this transparency. This is the right move for our state and people we all represent.”

The GOP bills would also expand the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act to include the governor and legislature, create constitutionally required financial disclosure forms for lawmakers, prohibit legislators from voting when they or an immediate family member could personally benefit, create a cooling-off period that prohibits legislators and government department heads from becoming lobbyists for two years after the end of their term or tenure.

“This is the fifth Sunshine Week of Gov. Whitmer’s administration, but we’ve yet to see her act on any of her campaign promises,” said Rep. Bill G. Schuette (R-Midland).

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The ethics and transparency legislation is contained within House Bills 42614272. Schuette’s bill is HB 4261, which amends the state’s Freedom of Information Act to subject the governor and lieutenant governor and their employees to FOIA beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

“Michigan has long been toward the bottom of national rankings for transparency in government. It’s unacceptable and it’s time we forgo this status quo,” said Schuette. “These proposals are steps in the right direction. Voters approved Proposal 1 last year and sent a clear message that the people of this state demand greater transparency from their public officials.”

Last year, voters did approve by a 2-1 margin a government transparency measure, Proposal 1. That constitutional amendment altered the state’s term limits law for legislators and requires elected state legislative and state executive officials to file annual financial disclosure reports on their income, assets, liabilities, gifts from lobbyists, positions held in certain organizations, and agreements on future employment.

However, the Michigan Legislature will need to craft legislation to implement the proposal. Democrats signaled they’re ready to do so.

“Financial disclosure among legislators is key to greater transparency. Michiganders have every right to know potential conflicts of interest among their representatives so they can assess their actions and their votes accordingly,” said Rep. Erin Byrnes (D–Dearborn), chair of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee. “It is time to shine a light on this critical component of accountability that for years has been shrouded in mystery in Lansing.”

The GOP bills would also form new permanent bipartisan ethics committees – one in each chamber – that would have an equal party split and alternating co-chairs while having the ability to issue advisory opinions and recommend disciplinary action. In addition, the committees would be able to receive and investigate public complaints about legislator misconduct, which Schuette said was a critical component to ensuring state government accountability.

That issue came to the forefront last year when allegations of criminal sexual assault were made against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) by his sister-in-law. The ensuing investigation also turned up evidence of alleged financial misconduct. Those allegations, which Chatfield has vehemently denied, remain under investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

However, House Democrats were highly critical of Republicans who were in the majority at the time, for failing to initiate its own investigation.

On that point, Democrats, including Nessel, said there is a need now more than ever to examine how elected officials operate nonprofit fundraising vehicles for political gain.

“Our residents have to be able to trust their elected officials will work for them, not the well-moneyed interests bankrolling them from the shadows,” Nessel said. “Michigan is in desperate need of commonsense campaign finance laws to ensure that information regarding the donors who back our state’s election ads, ballot initiatives, and candidate campaigns is being disclosed to voters. I look forward to working with Sen. Moss and others in the Legislature during Sunshine Week and beyond to help shine a light on the dark money being spent in Michigan politics.”

Democrats also said they want to focus on so-called “dark money,” used to describe contributions from undisclosed donors.

“I am proud to be working with Sen. Moss on legislation to move our state from worst to first in transparency. Citizens deserve to know how their elected leaders fund their campaigns and are motivated by personal financial interests, and I am hopeful lawmakers will move legislation forward to make our government work better for all Michiganders,” said Benson.

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

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