Until April 2006, I was a politically appointed legislative staffer for the Michigan House of Representatives. My wife has such a job right now. Your tax dollars flow directly to her paycheck and thus to our household. But due to a special exemption that the Legislature created for itself in the state’s Freedom of Information Act, you as her employer have no legal right to know any of this.
There are strong reasons to believe that Michigan’s new governor and Legislature will soon repeal this secrecy perk. This will finally give you the legal right to know who is taking orders from your state politicians, and how much you are paying those political staffers to follow those orders.
It’s about time. Unlike the Michigan House, Senate or governor, the U.S. Congress is required to reveal to taxpayers what they pay political appointees. State FOIA disclosure requirements already apply to most non-political state employees, all school employees and most local government employees.
For example, two years ago, my wife was a legislative aide for a U.S. congressman. You don’t even need to file a FOIA request to know what she was paid in that job: It is available on the Internet at Legistorm.com. The state of Missouri provides an Internet database for every state government employee, including the politicial staffers. It is reasonable to expect the same of Michigan government.
Disclosure of the names and salaries of the political appointees who staff these hundreds of state jobs is particularly important because objective skill criteria are often not the first thing used to screen for “qualified” applicants. Politics is more the issue: The most critical “qualification” for getting this work is often helping the winning team win. For the most part, these people all know how to do the jobs, but the really valuable line on their resume is the one that demonstrates their loyalty and sacrifices to the cause of the party and politicians that they work for.
With Republicans taking over the Michigan House and the governor’s office, and GOP gains in the Michigan Senate, several dozen Democrat staffers will no longer be “qualified” for their jobs at the state capitol on Jan. 1. In their place will be many dozens of suddenly “qualified” Republican staffers. It won’t be the qualifications of these people that changes — it will be the politics of who controls state government.
This should not be read as an indictment of the system or of the people who win these jobs. In an ideal world, politicians are loyal to a certain clear set of principles and win elections because voters want them to implement those principles. If they are to have staff to help them advance those principles, it makes sense that the staff be loyal to those ideals as well.
Loyalty is an important component for a competitive political system, but it can often become its worst vice. There is a blurry line between loyalty to principle and loyalty to politicians. Complicating matters is that we must empower the politicians to draw that line. Among the egregious revelations of the disgraced regime of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is the extraordinary number of loyal “friends and family” that he placed on the city payroll. This came to light because local government politicians — unlike those at the state level — are subject to FOIA and must surrender these details when asked.
Likewise, it should be easy for any taxpayer to find out whether a relative or spouse of a lawmaker or a lobbyist is working on the payroll of a state lawmaker or the governor. (And there are already examples of both in Michigan.) The same applies to the wife of Michigan Capitol Confidential’s senior managing editor. Her paycheck is your business.
Fortunately, state lawmakers and the new governor may soon give up their special power to keep these secrets.
One candidate for governor was very emphatic regarding why this change is needed:
"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."
Those are the words of Virg Bernero, speaking to the Gongwer News Service shortly before winning the Democrat nomination for governor. Of course, Bernero was defeated by Republican Rick Snyder. But before Bernero made his pledge to Gongwer, Governor-Elect Snyder and each of the other four GOP candidates for governor made the same promise when asked by Michigan Capitol Confidential. (The two Democrat candidates were also asked by MichCapCon.com but declined to respond.)
If the Snyder administration sticks to this pledge, and the Michigan Legislature submits to him a bill to lift the FOIA exemption, it would mark a departure from the policy of outgoing Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Her office has repeatedly denied requests for this information. The Office of the Governor has responded to such requests by quoting the FOIA law’s exemption and noting that voluntarily releasing knowledge of her political appointees' salary details would not be done because it would provide "little value to the taxpayer."
The Michigan Legislature has taken a different approach. While never making an effort to repeal their FOIA exemption, both the House and Senate have voluntarily released staff names and salaries when asked to do so. However, those asking for the information are pointedly reminded that the Legislature is not subject to FOIA and is not legally required to give it up.
MichCapCon.com requested and received these lists in July and posted them on Internet.
During the 2009-10 session of the Michigan Legislature, state Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Twp., was the sponsor of legislation to repeal the special FOIA exemption. The Democrat-controlled House never considered his bill. As noted, the current governor’s hostility toward release of her own information would seem to make it unlikely that such a bill would have been signed into law.
But that changes next week. Republicans will control the House, and Lund will return as the Majority Whip — part of the House leadership team. This summer, he was optimistic when told that his idea had the new governor’s support:
"This is just the type of open government that we need. There is nothing better than 10 million pairs of eyes making sure [politicians] are doing what is right and not wasting their money.”
And early indications are that Gov. Snyder intends to keep this commitment.
"Taxpayers deserve full disclosure of how their dollars are used," said a spokesperson for Snyder to the Detroit News on Dec. 27, noting also that the administration planned to “provide meaningful, easily accessible information in a consistent format."
A few Michigan lawmakers have already begun to voluntarily post the names and salaries of their employees on state websites. They are following the example set by current state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, and future Congressman Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids. In early 2009, shortly after being sworn into office, the rookie state representatives became the first state lawmakers in Michigan history to voluntarily post this information on the Internet.