Advance Notice: Briefs

Progress Michigan wants FOIA reform loopholes plugged

By: - March 5, 2019 1:14 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Legislation opening the governor’s office and the Legislature to public records requests has some major transparency flaws, Progress Michigan said on Monday.

House Bills 40074016 would open Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The package also creates a new Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) overseeing information requests to the Legislature. The bills have bipartisan support.

Gretchen Whitmer, August 8, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Legislation is scheduled on Tuesday to be before the state House Government Operations committee.

Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states in the nation that exempt both the governor’s office and state lawmakers’ offices from FOIA requests.

Proposed changes this year are “a step in the right direction,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, a liberal nonprofit group. The LORA plan, however, has major loopholes that would offer significantly less transparency than traditional FOIA laws, he said.

“We should not settle for incremental steps when bold action is what we need,” Scott said.

The group has two main concerns. The first is that citizens would not be able to bring lawsuits against the Legislature when LORA requests are denied. The second is that lawmakers would be allowed to destroy records after only 30 days.

Lonnie Scott

Under FOIA, public records are often retained for years.

Progress Michigan is calling to extend the state’s existing FOIA law to the Legislature instead of LORA.

“What this bill package does is hold the governor to a higher standard than the Legislature is attempting to hold themselves, which is not what the citizens of Michigan want and deserve,“ Scott said.

Many lawmakers and other groups have long criticized Michigan for its dead-last transparency and accountability ranking from the Center for Public Integrity.

The state House approved a similar FOIA package in 2017, but it died in the Senate, where former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) opposed the plan.

This session, majority House Republicans listed FOIA reform among their top priorities.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.