Michigan ballot drive would subject governor, lawmakers to FOIA

Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

LANSING, Mich. – Advocates for open government said Monday that they will launch a 2022 ballot drive to subject Michigan's governor and Legislature to public-records requests.

Michigan is one of just two states that wholly exempt the governor's office and is among eight states where lawmakers are explicitly exempt. Bills to end the exemptions from the 1976 Freedom of Information Act have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate despite having won widespread bipartisan support in the GOP-led House in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, said the “people of Michigan deserve accountable and transparent government.”

The organization will announce further details in mid-March, timed for Sunshine Week — a period intended to highlight the importance of open-government policies. Advocates will need to collect about 340,000 valid voter signatures to initiate legislation or roughly 425,000 signatures to propose a constitutional amendment.

“Every year, it's the same story. Bills with good intentions that don't go quite far enough, and include ludicrous carveouts for the Legislature in an effort to bribe Republicans to support them, slowly die on the vine because of a lack of political will or commitment to real transparency in the Legislature,” Scott said. “The public is sick of it and we're done playing games.”

The legislation that received unanimous House approval two years ago would have removed a specific exclusion of the governor and lieutenant governor from FOIA requests. But various records and information would be exempt, including those related to gubernatorial appointments; pardons and commutations; budget recommendations and spending cuts; the executive residence; constituent communications; and information or records subject to executive privilege.

Legislative exemptions would have mirrored those that other public bodies can claim, including for communications and notes of an advisory nature unless the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in encouraging frank communications. Unlike with other FOIA requests, however, people seeking legislative records could not have gone to court. A legislative administrator's appeal decisions would have been final.

The protection from lawsuits and the addition of numerous exemptions to exclude gubernatorial and legislative information from public disclosure drew criticism at the time, but advocates still called the bills a good step forward. Legislation for the new two-year session could be introduced this week.

If Progress Michigan won certification for an initiated measure, it would go the legislators. They could enact the bill into law or let it go to voters in November 2022. If the group successfully pursued a constitutional amendment, it would automatically be placed on the ballot.

Progress Michigan will use paid circulators and volunteers, said Scott, who expressed confidence in the organization's ability to fund the initiative. Ballot campaigns can cost millions of dollars.


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