News Story

Bills Would Repeal Legislators', Governor's Open Records Law Exemptions

Flint water crisis turns up the heat

When running for office, Gov. Rick Snyder said he would sign a bill repealing the exemption of the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators and other executive officers and employees from Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.

He may get a chance, as two lawmakers, one Republican and one Democrat, are jointly planning to introduce bills that would make the governor and Legislature subject to FOIA. Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, say they’ll introduce the legislation within roughly six weeks.

Dating back to its inception in 1976, Michigan’s FOIA law has included an exemption for the governor as well as legislators. In recent years, bills have been introduced to end these exemptions, but until this year, they were all sponsored by members of the Legislature who were in the party that did not occupy the governor’s office. The fact that McBroom is a member of the party that controls the House, Senate and executive branch means that the upcoming legislation will break that pattern.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, there has been renewed pressure to make the governor and legislators subject to FOIA. However, McBroom and Moss have been discussing bipartisan FOIA legislation for months.

“This is something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” Moss said. “These will be new bills, not ones that have already been introduced. We’ll introduce and announce them sometime around ‘sunshine week’ (March 13-19). This is legislation that we really want to get done.”

A key point of contention with previous bills has been whether they would exempt communications involving constituents. Most haven’t included such an exemption — a fact that repeatedly made it easier for opponents of expanding FOIA to derail the legislation.

According to Moss, the measures will address this detail.

“We’re trying to work those things out now,” Moss said. “Obviously, we don’t want to have constituents’ questions concerning things like their unemployment benefits and personal things of that sort being subjected to FOIA.”

McBroom said there are actually two touchy issues to tackle concerning legislators and FOIA, and constituent communications is the easier to overcome.

“Those can be separated out in the same way as other things that don’t pertain to FOIA,” McBroom said. “What’s tougher is dealing with constitutional protections, at both the federal and state level, for (legislative) members regarding speech, issues and debate.”

“Michigan has been receiving low grades for its transparency,” he continued. “However, when we checked around, we found that Michigan’s FOIA law isn’t really much different from the FOIA laws in most other states. Yes, we want to improve our transparency but we need to make sure the legislation we introduce is the result of careful consideration.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.