Transparency bills flounder in Michigan state Senate during Sunshine Week

Mar 16, 2022 at 11:58 am
click to enlarge Lansing State Capitol Building in Michigan under the cover of darkness. - McKeeDigital, Shutterstock
McKeeDigital, Shutterstock
Lansing State Capitol Building in Michigan under the cover of darkness.

In many states, Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of open government.

In Michigan, it’s a dark reminder that the state is one of the least transparent in the country.

Michigan is just one of two states that don’t require the Governor’s Office or Legislature to respond to public records requests, and it consistently ranks among the worst states for transparency and accountability.

In March 2021, the state House approved a bipartisan package of bills that would extend the Freedom of Information to the Governor’s Office and the Legislature. But since then, the bills have floundered in the Republican-controlled Senate, and have yet to be taken up for a floor vote.

State Rep. Mark Tisdel, R-Rochester Hills, renewed his calls for the Senate to approve the bills.

“It’s Sunshine Week, and our bipartisan transparency plan is getting well-tanned as it sits in the Senate,” Tisdel said in a statement Tuesday. “Michigan remains one of the least transparent states in the nation. Last year, the House approved a plan to bring the Legislature’s and governor’s records to light — unanimously. The Senate should quickly sign on to our efforts to make our government more transparent for the people of our state.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, perhaps fittingly, didn’t respond to Metro Times’ request for comment.

“Lansing has operated in the dark for long enough. It’s time to shine a light on the Legislature, and that process starts with highlighting Republican inaction on these common-sense measures,” House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said in a statement. “All we’re asking is to bring Michigan in line with nearly every other state in the union and give citizens true ethics standards and the ability to watch government work.”

Frustrated by the Senate’s refusal to take up the bills in the past decade, advocates for transparency had planned to launch a ballot initiative that would expand FOIA to include the Governor’s Office and Legislature. But the group, Close Lansing Loopholes, begrudgingly decided to hold off because it was running out of time to collect signatures.

Lonnie Scott, a leader of the initiative and executive director of Progress Michigan, a progressive nonprofit, says the bills before the Senate have too many loopholes and broad exemptions. Under the legislation, for example, documents wouldn’t be considered public record for 15 days, and there’s an exception for all communication between the governor’s office and the Legislature and their constituents.

The legislation also removes a judicial review from the process if a FOIA is denied. Instead, appeals would go to the administrator of the Legislative Council.

“There are so many exceptions for the Legislature that don’t exist anywhere else in the state,” Scott tells Metro Times. “The bills create tiers of transparency. The Legislature would be the least transparent. It creates a lot of exceptions for them that don’t exist anywhere else in FOIA.”

Even when FOIA requests are approved by the state, the costs to receive the records are often exorbitant. Writing for Metro Times, reporter Erin Marie Miller, for example, said she was charged $284,541 for two months of communications related to the short-lived $9 million government-funded field hospital set up at what was then Detroit’s TCF Center in the early months of the pandemic. Miller also was charged $37,590 for more than a year’s worth of communications and data related to COVID-19 policymaking.

While the state Senate keeps Michigan in the dark, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, announced Wednesday that her office will soon begin accepting online credit card payments for FOIA requests. The initiative began with Kelly Rossman-McKinney, former spokeswoman for the AG’s Office who died in November.

“I find it fitting that one of Kelly’s last accomplishments as our Communications Director is this new payment option for Department FOIAs,” Nessel said. “She spent her entire career advocating for journalists and government transparency, and this change is all credit to her. It’s my hope the online transactions provide an easier avenue to securing responsive records under FOIA.”

Nessel’s office has called for more government transparency.

Stay connected with Detroit Metro Times. Subscribe to our newsletters, and follow us on Google News, Apple News, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit.