May 26, 2023 - Politics

FOIA Friday: "I think we'll get it done," Whitmer says on reform

Michigan Capitol rotunda. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios.

Michigan Capitol rotunda. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

Michigan Democrats have been passing legislative priorities after taking control of the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years, but proposals to make their offices subject to open records requests have yet to get off the ground.

Why it matters: There's been a bipartisan effort in recent years to improve the public's ability to access information from the state government, but only Republicans have introduced legislation this session.

The intrigue: We asked the governor what's keeping lawmakers from moving on the long-talked-about reform, plus what's stopping her from using executive authority to subject her own office to Freedom of Information Act requests right now — something Whitmer said she would consider at a 2019 Michigan Press Association event.

  • She didn't directly answer the questions but said her concern is that future administrations could bar themselves from being held to the same standard if the proposed legislation is enacted.

What she's saying: "(Republicans) would never have an incentive to hold the legislative branch to the same level of scrutiny," Whitmer says.

  • "My goal is to make sure that we've got thoughtful, robust policies that apply to all branches of government equally. I think we'll get it done."
  • "I've always supported enhanced transparency when it comes to the government. What I have not found common ground on with the previous Legislature was that they only wanted to impose that on one branch of government."

Details: Michigan's Constitution contains a provision that would protect legislators from an appeal to courts if they were to be uncooperative of a FOIA request, which does not apply to the governor or lieutenant governor.

  • Whitmer has concerns that legislators could therefore exempt themselves in a way the governor's office could not.

Between the lines: While Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have both recently urged ethics reforms, lawmakers are still working out the details of the required financial disclosures included in Prop 1, a constitutional amendment that passed last fall to change the state’s term limits law for legislators and require elected officials to file disclosures.

  • "What the scope of Prop 1 is, I think will be a step in the right direction," Whitmer says.
  • Sen. Jeremy Moss, who's advocated for open records reforms since joining the Legislature, says the implementation of Prop 2 is currently receiving priority in the Elections and Ethics committee, which he chairs.
  • "We're going to work on this through summer — even if the bill were introduced today and signed into law tomorrow, we would still need time to set up the infrastructure," Moss says.

Of note: The governor tells Axios she will release her 2022 financial disclosure and tax return on Friday.

The other side: Republicans don't believe Whitmer and Democrats are serious about passing meaningful reform this session.

  • "I think it's a bunch of bull----," Sen. Jim Runestad, (R-White Lake), tells Axios. "We are the worst in the nation on transparency and the media lets these guys get away from it."
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