News Story

Lawmakers Take Second Run at Expanding Open Records Law – to Themselves

But like last year, the Michigan Senate Majority Leader appears to have other ideas

Lawmakers are taking a second run at extending the scope of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act by applying its disclosure requirements to the Legislature, lieutenant governor and governor. As happened last year, a package of bills on the subject passed the House on a bipartisan basis, with no opposing votes.

Like the previous effort, this year’s measure has stalled in the Senate, where it held up by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

With some exceptions, Michigan’s open records law allows a person to get documents created, owned, or used by state agencies and local governments — though not from the Legislature, the governor’s office or the lieutenant governor.

The House-passed legislation would remove those blanket exceptions by creating a new Legislative Open Records Act, effective in 2019.

The governor and lieutenant governor could still withhold specific records. These include records related to upcoming personnel appointments; budget recommendations; reprieves, pardons and commutations; and more. The communications between constituents and the governor or legislators would also be exempt, as well as the records of the Republican and Democratic caucus staffs.

Senate Majority Leader Meekhof has referred the bills to the Government Operations Committee, which he chairs, and has said publically that he is no hurry to take up the FOIA expansion.

Meekhof spokesperson Amber McCann declined to comment on whether the majority leader plans to kill the bill but did say there is no timeline for any hearings.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Rep. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, who sponsored one of the bills, said he hasn’t heard anything about the package being killed, and added that some other legislative issues take a higher priority.

“I don’t think something’s dead until they tell us that, ‘this isn’t going anywhere,’ and I haven’t gotten that,” he said. “We can figure this stuff out . . . people out there need to have access to what we’re doing.”

The definition of which public records should be subject to disclosure under FOIA is the subject of an ongoing debate. According to Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, the issue became more important in the previous legislative session when journalists sought records from the offices of former Reps. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell, and Todd Courser, R-Lapeer. Both legislators were ultimately driven from the House for actions taken to cover up an extramarital affair.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Michigan Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan have been united in advocating for FOIA reform and expansion. The Mackinac Center publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential.

“I think [the bills] are important because they would subject the state Legislature, the governor, and the lieutenant governor to the same standards basically that other government organizations are subjected to,” McGraw said. “It would ... benefit not only members, but citizens.”

McGraw also said that the package of bills includes compromises to address the concerns of critics, including Meekhof.

“There are probably more exemptions than we’d like to see, but we believe this is a step in the right direction,” she said.

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.