News Story

Bill To Increase State Transparency Could Reduce It

Wouldn’t be first time the legislative process worked against open government

Michigan state lawmakers are considering a bill that would publish a quarterly list of state employees’ salaries but exclude their names.

The original version of House Bill 5015 of 2019, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, would list each state worker’s job title and salary on a website operated by the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The site would also include each employee’s benefits and civil service classification.

When it was introduced, Berman’s bill did not specify whether employee names would be named. But when the House Oversight Committee advanced the bill, its members unanimously approved a substitute proposed by Detroit Democrat Cynthia Johnson that would exclude employee names.

“[The original bill] was silent on it. ... It didn’t expressly exclude it,” Johnson said, according to the MIRS news service. “We wanted to make it real crystal clear.”

Under the substitute version, employees’ names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, email addresses, initials, and any other information that could potentially reveal their identities would not be included on the public website. Johnson said that failing to omit that information would subject the employees to potential identity theft.

“It doesn’t prevent the information from being able to be accessed through the Freedom of Information Act,” Berman said of the bill substitute, according to MIRS. “They just don’t want it posted on there and make it easier for somebody with nefarious intent.”

The specific information that would be excluded – individual employees’ names attached to how much they get paid — is currently published on an annual basis by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy on its website. The Mackinac Center uses information it obtains under Michigan’s open records law.

Berman argued that the state should not be relying on a third party to publish information that the state government should be handling on its own.

“The Mackinac Center can just turn off their website tomorrow. We can’t be relying on a third party,” he said. “Also, the Mackinac Center compiling that information is doing a great public good, a great public service in doing so. It is costing them time, money, and resources and donations to do that when it could be easier and less of burden by the government doing it themselves.”

“I think it will actually save us taxpayers’ money by limiting the amount of FOIA requests and the time it would take somebody to compile that information,” he added.

The Mackinac Center, the Michigan Press Association and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government provide the database of public employees' salaries.

The information the bill seeks to withhold has already been paid for by Michigan taxpayers, said Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com.

“It’s dangerous that the Michigan state Legislature is even considering constricting the citizens’ ‘right to know,’” Andrzejewski said. “Taxpayers already paid the salaries, perks, and pension benefits for public employees. We paid to create and already own the payroll records.”

“When you work for government, you work for the taxpayer,” he added. “Taxpayers deserve to see exactly who is earning how much for which job. Public employee salary and pension records are public information. Period.”

Withholding information from the public about government spending is akin to slamming the door on transparency and accountability, he said.

“Redacting names from the public employee salary file guts the ability of citizens, journalists, challengers to the incumbent political class, watchdogs, and others to give oversight,” Andrzejewski said.

“For example, how many public employees double or triple dip the system? Who, by name, receives how much salary or pension for what unit of government?” he asked. “Without names, it’s impossible to hold government accountable.”

“Don’t shield public employees from oversight,” Andrzejewski concluded. “Names, who is getting paid, is the most important record in the file.”