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FOIA bills move along in Senate, transparency bills to come in Michigan House

Michigan House of Representatives
Wikimedia Commons
Michigan House of Representatives

Michigan House Democrats unveiled their latest attempt at government transparency legislation Wednesday.

Sponsors say, among other things, the bills would require so-called “dark money” groups with ties to officials and campaigns to register with the Secretary of State, starting in 2026.

That would include 527 groups, which often include political action committees, or PACs, and 501(c)4 non-profit organizations. The latter doesn’t have to disclose donors, leading to concerns when it comes to political spending.

“Nearly every day, we hear of another instance of the inappropriate use of 501(c)4 accounts by electeds or their staff. But it’s almost impossible to hold bad actors accountable when our state law doesn’t even give the (Attorney General) or the Secretary of State a starting point to identify them,” state Representative Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp) said during a press conference announcing the bills.

Overall, there are seven bills in the package.

Supporters say the bills would create a one-year waiting period before lawmakers could become lobbyists after leaving office.

The package would also change the state’s rules around gifts that lawmakers and their staff receive.

Representative Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) noted lawmakers currently must disclose anything they may receive from a lobbyist. But the law doesn’t apply to other groups who may also fund gifts, like travel.

“So, the public is left in the dark about who is paying for those tickets, those trips, those concerts, et cetera. And we believe the public has the right to know that,” Coffia said.

A last part of the legislation would give Ingham County judges the ability to stop campaign finance violations as they happen, if the Bureau of Elections asks.

Overall, the package builds upon open government legislation that passed last year.

Those laws were required by a voter-approved constitutional amendment. But they received criticism for not doing enough to ensure real accountability.

Representative Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn) chairs the House Ethics and Oversight Committee. She said the new package is another step in the right direction.

“This is a process. We’re looking at going from bottom of the barrel nationwide to kind of clawing our way to the top ideally, right? That’s what we’re looking to do. So, there will be multiple steps as we kind of chart a new course in Lansing and in Michigan,” Byrnes said.

Some of the ideas floated in the new bills were originally included in proposals for last year’s transparency laws but never advanced.

Ethics and Oversight Committee Minority Vice Chair Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) said he’s glad the policies are coming back around. But he lamented the wait.

“You know, there’s ongoing ethics investigations. We have not done anything in the Ethics and Oversight Committee. We have not voted on a single bill since this entire session. So, I’m disappointed at the lack of progress. Great, welcome to the party. You’re a year late,” Kunse said.

When reached, Kunse said he hadn’t had a chance to fully read each bill yet. Though, he said he supported the gift disclosure rule changes and the waiting period to become a lobbyist.

Kunse said he’s optimistic for where discussions over the legislation could lead.

“We don’t need perfection, we need progress. So, let’s start moving forward. I hope we can do this,” Kunse said.

Meanwhile, on the Senate side of the Legislature, bills to hold the governor and lawmakers accountable to the Freedom of Information Act moved out of committee Wednesday.

The bills saw some changes before leaving committee, including one making more records available from the legislative majority and minority parties.

Now, the bipartisan-sponsored package would exempt documents related to public policy and district work advice specifically.

Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said it's a “win” for open government advocates.

“We’ve had advocates who have said that that’s just too broad of an exemption, without narrowing a little bit, that might be too big of a catchall. And so, we wanted to find the language of precisely of what we wanted to exempt from public disclosure,” Moss said.

Another change would shift the responsibility of determining whether releasing a record would be in the public interest.

A FOIA coordinator would make that case, rather than the person or group requesting the record.

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