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Legislature, Governor would be subject to FOIA under Senate bills

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Bills to make the Michigan Legislature and governor’s office to subject to public information laws under the state's Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, received a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Oversight Committee.

The package would give the public access to information like a lawmaker’s official calendar or correspondence with lobbyists.

Package co-sponsor state Senator Ed McBroom (R-Waucedah Twp) said one of the most important parts of the bill package gives constituents the chance to see what’s been done on a request made to an office.

“I want them to be able to check to make sure that I did somehow move forward on their issue and not just claim that I did.”

Meanwhile, McBroom’s fellow co-sponsor, State Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said the bills would be a major step toward greater transparency within state government.

“We’ve all endured over the last several years here from this Legislature, ethical questions at best and criminal activity at worst that have made headlines across our state. Those actions from bad actors were only made possible by the dark areas in our law in which they could exist,” Moss told the committee.

Michigan is one of two states that exempt the governor’s office from FOIA requests. The other is Massachusetts.

During the committee hearing, Moss said he hadn’t heard from Governor Whitmer’s office on whether it would support this specific legislation. But Moss said sponsors had been “engaging with her office.”

“This is something that is going to have to be a discussion for all of us to have. I’ve been open to ideas to strengthen it. And, if it can withstand scrutiny, let’s move it forward,” Moss said.

When asked about the legislation Wednesday afternoon, a Whitmer spokesperson said the governor wants more government transparency.

“The governor has been clear that we should increase transparency in state government and that it’s an important piece of government service. And so, we’ve agreed that it needs to be equally applied to both the governor’s office and the Legislature if they’re going to do it,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy told reporters.

The effort to subject lawmakers and the governor’s office to FOIA requests has been going on for years.

Pushing lawmakers to expand open records act laws has been a coalition, including members from the Michigan Press Association, the ACLU of Michigan, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

All three organizations, along with the elections reform group Voters Not Politicians, said they supported the progress during Wednesday’s hearing.

But concerns remained regarding exemptions carved out for various items.

Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association said some of the bills’ exemptions to open records requests are too broad – for example, one dealing with the governor’s decision making around granting pardons.

“We’re not really clear on why that’s necessary and are concerned about unintended consequences,” McGraw said.

Another exception would exempt constituent communications from requests. Lawmakers supported the step as a way to protect constituent privacy.

ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Merissa Kovach said privacy is important.

“Folks may want to see how their elected officials are interacting and responding to their constituents in their communities, especially because the policies that you’re passing may very well be felt at the local level and there may be signs of those policies or actions by government being felt and started at the local level,” Kovach said.

The bills remain in committee.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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