Sun May Finally Shine on State Pols' Staff Salary Secrets

All five GOP gov candidates support bill to remove special FOIA exemption for Legislature and governor's office

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Michigan's Freedom of Information Act requires that the politicians running local governments tell taxpayers who has been hired to work for them and how much those persons are being paid. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick — made infamous in part because of his "friends and family" hiring policy — had to disclose this information. And because of a similar federal law that requires timely reporting of staff names and salaries by the Congress and White House, so does his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Detroit.

But if you're the governor of Michigan or one of the lawmakers running either chamber of the Michigan Legislature, such rules literally do not apply to you. This is because of a little-known secrecy perk in FOIA, passed by one state Legislature in 1976 and signed by then-Gov. William Milliken, that has allowed all subsequent state legislatures and governors the option of hiring public employees with public dollars and hiding the details from public scrutiny.

If any of the five men running on the GOP side to become Michigan's next governor win the job, this shroud of secrecy could be lifted. 

At issue is House Bill 4613, sponsored by state Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, which would amend FOIA, lift the exemption, and require the Legislature and governor to turn over this information. Last week, Michigan Capitol Confidential asked each of the five GOP candidates for governor and both Democrats whether they would sign the Lund bill if it came to their desk. All of the Republicans replied that they would, but each of the Democrat campaigns did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm's office has repeatedly refused to release this information. In 2008, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Show Michigan the Money transparency project asked the governor to place the names and salaries of all state employees on a state website. The Officer of the Governor replied that online public access to the names and salaries of state employees would provide "little value to the taxpayer." On July 7 of this year, replying to the most recent request from MichCapCon.com for the names and salaries of their taxpayer-financed staff, the Office of the Governor sent a notice quoting FOIA's exemption:

Michigan's FOIA provides public access to certain public records of public bodies. However, the definition of public body "does not include the governor or lieutenant governor, the executive office of the governor or lieutenant governor, or employees thereof." See MCL  15.232(d). Accordingly, this office is not subject to the provisions of the FOIA.

For many years, and despite the fact that they are not required to do so under FOIA, the Michigan Legislature has customarily released the names and salaries of its employees to anyone who submits a written request. Such lists are often requested by and circulated amongst Legislative staff, curious to know the salaries of one another. MichCapCon made such a request at the end of June and received documents listing employee names and salaries from both the Michigan House and Senate within a week, and at no charge. 

These lists will soon be made available on the MichCapCon website.

Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, is one of the two Democrat candidates for governor and, as House Speaker, is the person responsible for allowing the House employee list to be released to MichCapCon. Like all other local government executive officers, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the other Democrat candidate for governor, is required to release comparable lists of his employees and their salaries.

In addition to being asked whether they would support the Lund bill's repeal of the FOIA exemption, each of the candidates for governor were also asked whether they would support putting this information on a publicly-available state website, making it unnecessary for curious citizens to file a FOIA request to get at the information. All of the Republicans said that they would support this disclosure. (As noted above, the Democrat candidates did not respond to MichCapCon's request for a comment.)

Early last year, shortly after being sworn into office as freshman lawmakers, GOP state Reps. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills and Justin Amash of Cascade Township became the first two politicians in Michigan history to provide this information voluntarily on a state website. Shortly thereafter, several other House members followed their example.  

As this was happening, Lund, also a rookie lawmaker, introduced the bill that would abolish the special FOIA reporting exemption.

"This is just the type of open government that we need," said Lund, when informed that his bill had the support of every Republican running for governor. "There is nothing better than 10 million pairs of eyes making sure [politicians] are doing what is right and not wasting their money."

~~~~~

In an interview with the Gongwer News Service that took place after publication of this article, Virg Bernero stated the following:

"As Governor I will ask lawmakers to revoke the FOIA exemption for the governor's office as well as the Legislature. The intent of FOIA is to make the operations and spending of government as transparent as possible. The exemptions for the governor's office and Legislature only serve to hide this information from the people of Michigan." 

See also:

Cronyism easier to conceal in state capital than in Washington or Detroit

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