By Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance
In past sessions, legislation to help Michigan climb out from its worst-in-the-nation status for government transparency had passed with widespread bipartisan support in the House, but died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now, with a Democratic majority in the Legislature for the first time in almost 40 years, some Republican lawmakers say Democrats are holding up progress.
But Democratic lawmakers insist that legislation to expand the public’s ability to access information about elected officials is still a priority, noting they’ve gotten a lot done in the nine months since this legislative session started.
“We took over an institution that for 40 years, another party was in charge of and so we had a 40 year tick list of urgent priorities to get done,” state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said. “We successfully made movement on reducing gun violence, providing tax relief, eliminating opportunities for discrimination, passing a historic budget that invested in communities that had never seen state support, so we have many, many competing priorities that we’ve been feverishly working to deliver on,” Moss said.
The Legislature has also has a busy fall docket, with an energy overhaul, criminal justice reforms, prescription drug oversight and more. But implementing government transparency reforms required under Proposal 1 passed by voters last year is time-sensitive.
And the 2015 Center for Public Integrity’s state ranking of government transparency and accountability has hung over Michigan’s head since it was released in 2015, giving Michigan an “F” grade and ranking it worst in the nation.
Michigan is an outlier as the only state where both the governor’s office and Legislature are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information such as emails and texts.
House Republicans introduced several bills in March to expand FOIA requests, monitor for conflicts of interest and create a “cooling off period” where legislators would have to wait two years after their term ends to become a lobbyist. But those bills have gone untouched by House majority leadership.
Schuette, one of the package’s sponsors, says he’s concerned with where the state is going in terms of violating public trust.
“I’m a freshman state legislator. I’m the youngest Republican in the caucus, but I can tell you that both my generation or any of the many folks I represent in Mid-Michigan, faith in government is at an all time low and we need to take every step that we can to fortify people’s confidence in our state government, to fortify people’s trust in our constitutional republic,” Schuette said. “I think transparency in government is a great way to do that.”
Whitmer and ‘he who shall not be named’
Efforts to expand FOIA to the governor’s office and the Legislature, as well as manage conflicts of interest from lawmakers, have been bipartisan goals in the past, but the package has never made it to the finish line.
Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) put a “name” to the problem during a June 22 meeting of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee at the prompting of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Hope said there was an “obstacle” in the Senate to getting transparency bills to the floor for a vote that’s not there anymore. Benson interjected, “There was a person who was an obstacle.”
“He who shall not be named,” Hope joked, referencing GOP former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s well-known opposition to the bills.
But now Democrats are in control of the Legislature, as well as the top executive offices with Benson, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Republicans could have used their majority to allow transparency legislation to go through at any point during the last several decades, but they didn’t, Moss contends. However, he said he’s not interested in pointing fingers and values the Republican colleagues he’s worked with in the past in his transparency efforts.
Moss, now president pro tempore of the state Senate, has been a sponsor of bills to expand FOIA to the governor’s office, as well as other transparency-related bills since the start of his first term in the House in 2015. And now-Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) has been a partner on bipartisan legislation since that same session.
“Sen. McBroom and I are really having conversations about how to land this plane and get it done. I think there’s a difference in Lansing between bill introducers and lawmakers. We’re trying to make a law here,” Moss said.
Efforts from GOP lawmakers to reintroduce legislation from 2015 and slam the Democrat majority in their introduction fall short of the title of lawmaker, Moss said, adding that partisanship has to stay out of common sense transparency legislation to put Michigan on par with what other states are already doing.
“It’s humorous that you have some freshman House members in the minority complaining that their bills on this haven’t been heard in the last nine months when I’ve been working on this for eight years,” Moss said, seemingly referring to Schuette. “And it’s been their party in the majority, especially in the Senate, who has blocked it for eight years.”
Whitmer, a former longtime legislator, also has supported transparency efforts in the past.
Before getting elected governor in 2018, Whitmer promised on the campaign trail that if the legislature didn’t act, she would use her authority to expand FOIA to the governor and lieutenant governor, saying in her 2018 Sunshine Plan, “Michighanders should know when and what their governor is working on.”
However, Whitmer hasn’t extended FOIA to her office in her almost five years in office.
Transparency and accountability in government is important to Whitmer and she looks forward to the legislature making progress on bills that achieve those goals, the governor’s press secretary, Stacey LaRouche, told the Advance this month.
“With a new Democratic majority in the Legislature for the first time in 40 years, we have an opportunity to pass good government legislation that has stalled for decades,” LaRouche said. “We will work with the Legislature as those bills begin to move because Michiganders deserve a state government that works every day to serve people in the best way possible.”
Both McBroom and state Rep. Mike Harris (R-Waterford) have introduced other legislation to alter FOIA law in Michigan. That came after the Detroit Free Press found that Whitmer administration consultant had written in symbols part of an email in regards to a water crisis in Benton Harbor, which the Detroit Free Press determined was an accident.
The legislation would forbid the use of code and non-English letters in government communications.
Legislation implementing Proposal 1 of 2022
While FOIA and other accountability bills are important, Moss said there is more urgency to get bills to curb gun violence to the governor’s desk. Michigan has had two mass shootings in recent years at Oxford High School in November 2021 and Michigan State University in February.
Moss said Democrats have had a “busy and productive majority, adding that “if you wanted to, say, compare the urgency of FOIA reform to the urgency of gun violence, [we’re] probably going to side with gun violence. And so we are continuing our efforts.”
But the clock is ticking on lawmakers to pass other transparency legislation to implement Proposal 1, a 2022 constitutional amendment that reformed term limits and will require elected state legislative and state executive officials to submit financial disclosure reports annually, including items like their income, gifts from lobbyists and positions held in organizations.
The Legislature has a deadline of Dec. 31 to pass legislation to implement financial disclosures.
Rep. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn), who chairs the House Ethics and Oversight Committee and sits on the House Elections Committee, said Democrats are in the final stages of introducing their bills to implement Prop 1, which includes some transparency goals like financial disclosure.
Even with the deadline set for the end of the year, she said the bills will be introduced in the fall and she isn’t worried about not meeting the deadline.
“We’ve been working so diligently for so many months. We’ve really put in a tremendous amount of time and effort,” Byrnes said. “We’re in a good place with the bills right now. We’re really putting the finishing touches on making some final decisions on a few elements that we’re working through, and then we will be ready.”
But Schuette argues that bills to implement the voter-approved Prop 1 have already been introduced, by Republicans, over 200 days ago, and those could be taken up.
“Republicans have introduced their package; Republicans have introduced their priorities. We’ve seen no movement from the House Democrats, and you’re starting to wonder why, especially when you’ve seen all of these really nasty stories coming out about our lack of transparency.”
House Appropriations chair controversy
Historically, there has been outcry for government transparency in Michigan, notably in the case of the Flint water crisis, where decisions made by the government left the city with lead-contaminated drinking water.
And there have been some recent incidents involving current and former legislative leaders that have led some lawmakers to make the case for the urgency of such reforms.
The Detroit News found in an investigation in September that Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.), chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee that writes budget bills, has maintained a close relationship with Edge Partnerships, the consulting firm she founded.
It’s not known if she violated the law, but the revelations have drawn ire from Republicans as more details come out like The Detroit News finding that the car she drives is leased by Edge Partnerships with a “EDGE AW” license plate.
Reps. Tom Kunse (R-Clare), Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.) and Jay DeBoyer (R-Clay Twp.), introduced a resolution earlier this month to create a select committee to investigate Witwer, with Kunse telling media at the time if Democrats want him to “shut up” they can do their job.
Witwer did not respond to a request for comment.
House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) told media earlier in October that he had spoken with Witwer and said “he’s satisfied” with the answers she gave to various questions, including if she made any money since the beginning of the legislative session in January from her connection to Edge Partnership. He didn’t allude to any possible disciplinary actions in Witwer’s future.
There are recent incidents of confirmed corruption, like GOP former House Speaker Rick Johnson pleading guilty in September to accepting bribes as the head of the state’s marijuana regulatory board.
Additionally, when the sister-in-law of Republican former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) reported to police that she had endured sexual abuse by Chatfield, law enforcement also began investigating possible financial indiscretions during his time leading the House.
“This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democrat issue,” Schuette said, noting both sides of the political spectrum have had questions raised about integrity. “Voters want transparency in government and voters deserve to know this information. We work for the people and they have a right to freedom of information and financial disclosure.”
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