The financial secrets of state government were opened up just a bit more this week when a detailed accounting of expenses for the Michigan House of Representatives was posted on the House’s official website. Included in the “Financials” module is a listing of the names and salaries of each House employee. While individual lawmakers in the House have posted this information in the past, this is the first time in Michigan Legislative history that the public has been granted 24/7 online access to such information for every office in one of the state’s Legislative chambers.
In a news release, new House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said that this should be just the start of more openness in government.
"As we adopt the government reforms necessary to set Michigan on the right path for the future, we will be calling on local municipalities and school districts to be more transparent with the voters," Bolger said. "We should not ask others to do something that we are unwilling to do ourselves. Our finances are now readily available for review and I encourage all other taxpayer funded units to join us."
For most levels of government, the state FOIA law requires that the names and salaries of political appointees and other public employees be released to any person who files a request. But FOIA specifically exempts the House, Senate and Office of the Governor from this requirement. The House and Senate have often granted specific requests to anyone wishing to see the salary data, despite the FOIA exemption, and Bolger has decided to advance this policy one step further. The House data is now posted online for anyone who wishes to see it, and the new policy will be to update the online salaries and the other House financial data on a monthly basis.
For almost two years, Republican Rep. Pete Lund of Shelby Township has been proposing to abolish the special FOIA protection for state politicians. He applauded the Speaker’s decision to be open with information that the House is legally entitled to hide from public scrutiny.
“I am happy that the House Republicans are again taking the lead on transparency,” said Lund. “Soon I hope to introduce my bill that will require the three branches of the state government to open their books to the public.”
Last term, Lund’s bill proposing to lift the FOIA exemption as it applied to the staff names, salaries and other financial details of state politician offices was not given a hearing in the House, which was then controlled by Democrats. Ari Adler, spokesman for Bolger, says that the new leadership has not yet considered whether the House will push to pass a bill that revises the FOIA exemption.
During the 2010 election campaign for governor, then-candidate Rick Snyder said he would sign a bill like Lund’s if one reached his desk. His Democrat opponent, Virg Bernero, also said he would sign such a bill.
Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, is one new lawmaker who didn’t wait for the House policy to change: The names and salaries of his staff were posted earlier this year. While he says that some lawmakers were mildly concerned that posting this information could lead to uncomfortable questions from nosy constituents, he welcomes scrutiny of his spending.
“I WANT people to question these details,” he said. “We should have an ‘open kimono’ policy when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. I am exceedingly proud that the Speaker posted everything online.”
Fellow freshman Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, posted his staff names and salaries very shortly after Shirkey, and agrees with the policy of the entire House following along.
“People want to know where their money goes and what their public servants make,” he said. “This is a small way that we can do that.”
Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, was the very first lawmaker in Michigan history to post the names and salaries of his staff online, setting on early standard followed by many other trendsetters such as Lund, Shirkey, Poleski – and now Speaker Bolger.
“I am supportive of Rep. Lund’s efforts to make more information from the Legislative and Executive branches more available to the public through FOIA,” said McMillin. “It is the 21st century and the government needs to stop trying to hide its activities from the taxpayers – particularly how their money is spent.”
The Michigan Senate has not posted names and salaries under previous leaders. Amber McCann, spokeswoman for new Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, said that the Senate is now working on its own revamping of the official website. Some financial details regarding the Senate’s operations had been available in the past and no decisions have yet been made regarding how much more the upper chamber may be putting up when the new website is ready.
Names and salaries are some of the most interesting details, but not the only valuable items now available from the House website. Also included are details about health care policies available to House employees and detailed expense reports for the House.
There is even a separate expense report for the House Fiscal Agency. The fiscal policy analysis arm of the House of Representatives was rocked by scandal in 1993 when a Detroit News investigation ultimately exposed the director and his staff for diverting nearly $2 million from the HFA to a variety of personal and other illegal causes. Amongst the revelations were payments to HFA director John Morberg’s live-in girlfriend, unapproved bonus payments to other staffers, purchases of weapons for fighters in the civil war then raging in the Balkans, and more. Federal investigations and felony convictions soon followed for Morberg and others
And yet, despite the rise of the Internet age shortly thereafter and several different House Speakers since 1993, it has still taken until 2011 for the House of Representatives to post the HFA’s expenses where the public can take a look at them.
Today, any taxpayer can go online at any time of day or night and learn that Mitch Bean, the current director of the House Fiscal Agency, is paid $126,218. He is the highest-paid House employee on the list. If Bean or any other House employee receives a raise, the Speaker has pledged to reveal that change in the next monthly filing of the House’s financial information.
But the FOIA exemption is still in place and it allows this House Speaker or any who follow him the legal authority to kill this new openness policy. Little warning was given before Bolger made the abrupt change in policy this week. In the event of another scandal at the HFA or any other office, the House’s financial information could be removed from the Internet as suddenly as it went up.