OP-ED: Transparency long overdue in Michigan

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey

by NATHAN INKS

One of the best ways to ensure integrity in government is transparency. Unfortunately, Michigan ranks among the least transparent states in the nation, and this is in large part due to limitations in the state’s public records laws. Michigan is one of only two states – the other being Massachusetts – whose public records laws do not apply to the governor and lieutenant governor. Additionally, Michigan and Idaho are the only two states that do not require elected officials to make personal financial disclosures. Although Michigan is one of the 46 states that provides some public access to legislative records, it is one of only eight states to not cover legislators themselves under the state’s freedom of information law.

Some of this could change if a bipartisan group of legislators get their way. Bills have been introduced to make both the executive and legislative branches subject to freedom of information laws. Similar bills have been introduced but stalled before ever making it to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City) and Rep. Vanessa Guerra (D- Saginaw) have spearheaded a package of bills that would expand coverage of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to include the governor and lieutenant governor; they are also the primary backers of bills to create the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), which would apply similar records laws to legislators. To combat concerns raised by those who opposed expanding records laws to legislators in the past, the LORA bills would exempt some sensitive records, including communications with constituents and documents related to ongoing investigations.

The bills received bipartisan support, garnering nearly 70 cosponsors and passing in the House of Representatives without any “Nay” votes. The bills are currently in committee in the Senate.

Implementing a financial disclosure law may prove to be more of an uphill battle. Former Democratic Senator Steve Bieda introduced a financial disclosure bill seven times while in office; the most recent bill, introduced in 2018, died in committee. Earlier this year Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson advocated for the legislature to pass a financial disclosure bill, but it received a cold reception from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R- Clarklake), who expressed concern that – along with term limits – it could discourage people from running for office. Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R- Levering) was open to the idea but wanted to see a specific proposal before jumping on board.

Sen. Shirkey’s concerns are overblown; 48 other states have managed to enact financial disclosure laws without inadvertently eradicating competitive elections. Ironically, in Idaho—the only other state to also lack a financial disclosure law—40% of legislative candidates faced no challenger on the ballot in 2018. Clearly there are more significant disincentives to running for office.

The time for Michigan to join the majority of other states in support of government transparency is long overdue. The Michigan Senate has repeatedly been the primary roadblock to passage of transparency laws, and new Senate leadership has the opportunity to change that. Michigan voters and residents deserve to know not only what is happening in Lansing but why. Expanding freedom of information laws and requiring financial disclosures from lawmakers will help Michiganders more easily determine the “why?”