Michigan House gives unanimous approval to records bill
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s governor, lieutenant governor and legislators, to a lesser extent, would be subject to public records requests under a bill the House passed unanimously on Thursday.
Michigan is one of only two states that exempts the governor’s office from Freedom of Information Act requests. Before voting in favor of the measure, Republicans and Democrats alike said it was essential to increase trust between elected officials and those they represent.
If the Senate also passes the bill, it would go to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said while campaigning in 2018 that if the Legislature didn’t act, she would open the governor’s office to FOIA requests.
Republicans pointed to Whitmer as the prime example for why Michigan needs expanded FOIA laws, citing her handling of the coronavirus pandemic and recent controversy over a confidentiality clause in the state’s former health director’s severance deal to leave state employment.
Rep. Bryan Posthumus and other Republicans took verbal swings at Whitmer while addressing the need for government transparency.
“When it comes down to it, we work for our constituents,” Posthumus said. “We owe it to them, regardless of political party or ideology, to pass transparency laws that will prove it is our intent to use taxpayer resources responsibly, not recklessly.”
Democratic Rep. Tyrone Carter said that despite holes in the legislation, it is a good start.
“This is the people’s government, so the people need to know what’s happening in their government,” Carter said. “This is a long overdue package, and it’s not perfect, and we still have work to do to build the public’s trust. But today, we can make a step in the right direction.”
The legislation would create a separate standard of transparency for the legislative branch than for other state employees by creating a Legislative Open Records Act, which would include different exemptions than the Freedom of Information Act.
LORA specifies that something would only be public record and subject to an information request if it’s been in the possession of a person or body for 15 days or more, which could be a motivation for lawmakers to quickly dispose of emails and other correspondence to avoid them being subject to FOIA requests.
Additionally, under LORA’s rules, an Legislature-appointed administrator, not a court, would handle appeals of rejected records requests and other matters.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.