LANSING, Mich. – Michigan's secretary of state is aiming to have Michigan join most of the rest of the country in expanding public information requests to the governor and Legislature, she announced during a news conference Monday.
Kicking off Sunshine Week by laying out a government transparency plan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson asked the Legislature to take up the measures. Michigan is one of two states that exempts the governor's office from Freedom of Information Act requests and is one of eight states that exempt elected legislators.
“All of the measures are national best practices that voters on both sides of the aisle want, and they provide an an excellent opportunity for lawmakers to affirm public faith in our democracy as so many have claimed they want to do,” Benson said. “For these reasons, I’m hopeful that the state Legislature does advance these proposals this year, and that they do so in earnest.”
Sunshine Week is an annual focus on press freedoms and the fight for government transparency.
Michigan has had longstanding issues with public trust in elected officials. It ranked dead last in accountability and transparency in a 2015 assessment from The Center for Public Integrity.
Even if lawmakers don't take up changing Freedom of Information Act rules, some Michigan residents are mobilizing. The liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan announced at the beginning of March that it would launch a 2022 ballot drive to expand FOIA requirements to the governor and lawmakers. They would need about 425,000 signatures to propose a constitutional amendment that would appear on the November 2022 ballot. They would need to collect about 340,000 valid voter signatures to initiate legislation that would go to legislators who could enact the bill into law or let it go to voters in November 2022.
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.
To shine a light on dark money, Benson called for the state to require all political action committees, Super PACs and 527 committees to report their expenses and require reporting by indirect political campaigns.
Benson said she wants to ensure foreign money doesn't influence elections and called for the ban on such funds to extend past just Super PACs.
There ought to be a two-year period between state legislators leaving office and working as a lobbyists, Benson said, adding that companies and their owners should be banned from making political contributions if they receive state grants.
Benson noted that lawmakers are already making moves this legislative session to improve public trust.
Grand Rapids Rep. David LeGrand is sponsoring a bill that would require a two-year waiting period before they lobby after leaving office and another bill with dozens of bipartisan co-sponsors that would require elected officials to submit a financial disclosure report.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
This story was first published on March 15, 2021. It was updated on March 16, 2021, to correct what would happen if 425,000 signatures were collected to propose a state constitutional amendment.