by Scott McClallen
The Michigan House unanimously passed a flurry of bipartisan bills seeking to reform the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by including the governor and legislature under the new Legislative Open Records Act (LORA).
The House passed the package during “Sunshine Week,” which celebrates government transparency, and after reporters used FOIA to expose Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration gifting $253,000 in secret, taxpayer-funded severance packages.
The bill package is virtually identical to bills introduced in the 2015-16, 2017-8, and the 2019-20 legislative session other than technical changes and effective dates.
Those packages all failed.
House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, said the current package aims to renew Michiganders’ trust in government.
“Legislators on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate see the importance of shining sunlight onto Michigan’s records, and I’m confident the time has come to finally get these important laws passed through both chambers and signed by the governor,” Wentworth said in a statement. “One of our top priorities is to regain the trust of the people of the state and this is a strong start. They deserve access to the records of their elected officials, and we intend to give it to them.”
HB 4386 would eliminate FOIA exemptions for the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. Currently, Michigan is only one of two states that exempt the governor’s office from FOIA requests. In 2015, The Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last in the nation for government transparency.
If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bills would take effect Jan. 1, 2022.
While the Republicans and Democrats have fought for the last year over the state’s COVID-19 response, both parties seemed to agree on the bills as no lawmakers voted against the 10-bill package.
Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, said the package was “long overdue” but a “step in the right direction.”
“What we do on behalf of the people of Michigan day in and day out should be transparent. I’m very pleased to see the bipartisan support this legislation has received, which is a victory for the people of Michigan.”
Rep. Bryan Posthumus, R-Cannon Twp, welcomed the package.
“When it comes down to it, we work for our constituents. We owe it to them, regardless of political party or ideology, to pass transparency laws that will prove it is our intent to spend taxpayer resources responsibly, not recklessly.”
HB 4383 is tie-barred to the other nine bills, which means one bill can’t be enacted without each bill to which it’s tied.
The State House Oversight Committee approved the 10-bill package last week.
The bipartisan plan addresses fees for obtaining public records, deadlines to provide documents, and appeals when requests are denied.
Other bills in the package would create an appeals process for LORA and FOIA denials or exorbitant charges. Some exceptions would be allowed from LORA and FOIA requests under HB 4389, HB 4391, and HB 4392.
However, critics say there are too many loopholes, including that caucus records would be exempt. The package doesn’t allow those seeking records to go to court for legislative documents, the Associated Press reported.
The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency estimated the cost of hiring LORA and FOIA coordinators for fiscal years 21-22 at $381,000 and for fiscal years 22-23 at $508,000.
The bill package would increase costs to hire LORA coordinators, but most costs would be offset by charging fees to cover labor costs, the HFA notes.
The package garnered a wide range of supporters ranging from the AFSCME Council 25 to the Michigan Council on Open Government. The package now moves to the Senate.
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.