LANSING, Mich. — The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to subject Michigan’s governor and lawmakers to public records requests, passing legislation that gained momentum in the wake of Flint’s water crisis and a sex scandal that forced two legislators from office.
It is the first time such bills appear to have cleared a legislative chamber since passage of the Freedom of Information Act 40 years ago.
The 1976 law explicitly exempts the governor’s office from records requests. And a 1986 opinion by the state attorney general said legislators also intended to exclude themselves from the law.
Rep. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican and sponsor of a proposed Legislative Open Records Act, said it would “dispel the clouds of doubt, suspicion and mistrust and continue to really push forward with the idea that the folks of this state can trust their leaders that they put in office to be doing what’s right, to be going about the business of this state when we are in a taxpayer-paid for office. We work for them. They have the oversight over us.”
The bipartisan 10-bill package, which passed on 100-6 and 99-7 votes in the GOP-controlled House, was sent to the Senate, whose Republican leader has been unenthusiastic about the legislation previously.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Wednesday he is concerned about constituents’ communications with lawmakers becoming public, though the House bills would exempt them from disclosure. He said he had no opinion yet on whether the governor’s office should fall under FOIA requests, calling it an “interesting concept.”
Calls for more open government in Michigan have been more intense since state regulatory failures led Flint’s water to be contaminated with lead, a toxin that can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in young children. The disaster was exposed a year ago just weeks after two lawmakers were forced from office over an extramarital affair, cover-up attempt and allegations of misused public resources — which also prompted renewed focus on the open records law.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for his administration’s role in the public health emergency, has voluntarily released thousands of pages of related emails and other executive office records. Spokesman Ari Adler said the governor is monitoring the FOIA bills’ progress and would “look at any proposed changes that treat the legislative and executive branches equally.”
Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, said Michigan is one of just two states to wholly exempt the governor from open records laws. It is among eight states where the legislature is explicitly exempt, she said.
Rep. Jeremy Moss, a Southfield Democrat and sponsor of a bill that would subject the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices and their employees to FOIA, urged House members to lobby senators to send the package to Snyder.
He said the scandal involving former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat “spurred the conversation” to study the issue, while the Flint disaster gave it a “big spotlight.”
“It was something we wanted to work on before then,” Moss said. “But the heightened sensitivity around those two issues gave it a little bit of momentum.”
House Bills 5469-78: http://bit.ly/2cDVOB4