A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Capitol Confidential is devoted to the idea of presenting public information to the public. And now the two men contending for the state's highest office have pledged to support opening the books on staff salaries that previous governors and lawmakers kept secret.

Michigan's Watergate-era public records law, called the Freedom of Information Act, is one of the better such laws among the 50 states. Among other things, it deems public information the individual wages and benefits of the vast majority of government employees (state, local, public school and higher education). The rationale is twofold: limit the potential for corrupt payment schemes, and recognize taxpayers' right to know whom they are paying and how much.

But our FOIA law carefully carves out what we might call secrecy privileges for lawmakers and governors themselves (the very parties who wrote and enacted the FOIA law). Their own wages are public information, but they are still allowed to keep secret the amounts they pay their hundreds of staff members in the legislature and governor's office.

Last summer, Capitol Confidential reported that Democrat Virg Bernero and Republican Rick Snyder both pledged, if elected governor, to support legislation that would end the secrecy privileges. Such a bill has been introduced by Rep. Pete Lund (R-Shelby Twp.) That's a very good thing, but FOIA needs even more of a revamp than that.

In the 1970s it seemed reasonable to require officials to provide certain public information only when asked by the public. It would have been too expensive to mail all public records to all citizens, or print them all in newspapers, for instance. When a citizen asked for information, he or she could inspect it in person or pay a reasonable amount for a paper copy.

But the Internet age has made that once unprecedented FOIA requirement — government must disclose when asked — seem old-fashioned and insufficient. Citizens are growing ever more comfortable with — and expecting — information available on the Internet.

Today's citizen is probably aware that most public records are now somehow electronic. They may wonder, "If public records are electronic, why can't they just be posted on the Internet?" After all, what is the government doing with all those computers if not creating electronic records of some kind? It's not as if they're still using typewriters.

It's true that electronic records can't always be posted effortlessly to the Internet in useful form, but that doesn't mean there's any excuse for what many public officials are known to do. Instead of providing public data in electronic form that can be easily organized, sorted and searched, they take extra steps to convert the data back to cumbersome paper form before handing it over to the public.

I won't argue they're not complying with the letter of the FOIA law. But I wonder if they believe they're complying with the spirit of it.

What's the big deal about government salaries, anyway? Ask former Detroit mayor and now convicted felon Kwame Kilpatrick. Contributing to his downfall and the prosecution of justice were public records laws that revealed his apparent tendency to favor friends and family, including his mistress, over other city employees. Along the way, he tried to hide millions of dollars in payments to former city employees.

When we at the Mackinac Center asked the governor's office to provide names and salaries of her tax-funded employees, we received a letter saying that placing such information online would provide "little value to the taxpayer."

That's why we're encouraged by growing interest in government transparency by the public and public officials. Not only do we have Bernero's and Snyder's pledges and Lund's bill, we have Democrat and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate who have released to us public salary information that was not required by FOIA. When we published government employee names and salaries, it illuminated at least one possible instance of a tax-funded employee engaging in impermissible political work.

We also have seen admirable strides in government transparency by select legislators, public schools and state officers in response to the Mackinac Center's "Show Michigan the Money" project. Reps. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hill) and Justin Amash (R-Kentwood) published their offices' salary data online before their legislative leaders gave us paper copies. Several dozen public school districts have put their checkbook registers online. And Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and Attorney General Mike Cox published on their websites more spending data about their operations than their predecessors.

A new legislature and governor starting in 2011 give us a fresh chance to bring our public records law into the Internet age. There is more public demand, and official support, than ever before. But the key to success will be whether well-informed citizens, like readers of Capitol Confidential, hold their elected officials accountable.

Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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