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Michigan legislature hopes to increase government transparency with FOIA expansion

Vincent Duffy
Michigan Radio

State lawmakers are once again considering legislation that would increase transparency and access to public records. A 10-bill package would remove exemptions for the governor and lieutenant governor's office from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as well as create the Legislative Open Records Act for the state legislature.

The bills also lay out all of the exceptions to the widening of requests for public records from state government. Exceptions for the governor's office include budget recommendations, information subject to executive privilege, decisions to remove or suspend a public official or judge from office, and decisions on granting a reprieve, commutation, or pardon.

For the Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA, exceptions include records and documents related to an ongoing legislative or internal investigation, records subject to attorney-client privilege or any other privilege recognized by the constitution, and  communications between a legislator or a legislator's office and a constituent, other than a person required to be registered as a lobbyist.

Cell phone numbers are exceptions for both LORA and the governor and lietuentant governor's office.

The legislature has attempted to pass similar legislation in the past, and was met with opposition from past senate majority leaders, inlcuding Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).

Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) is the chair of the House Oversight Committee. He says the new house speaker, Jason Wentworth, has stated that government transparency is a priority of his.

"Elected officials are giving themselves a different set of rules to play by, and that has to stop. And I think the public is demanding that that stop. Political dynamics have changed, and I think the public pressure has risen to an all-time high."

He says the bill package has support from Democrats and Republicans both in Lansing and across the state.

"Now we may have differences of opinion of what their government should be doing, but at the end of the day we should all be able to see what’s going on. And that’s why this package of bills has Republicans and Democrats on it. This is not a partisan issue."

Johnson expressed concerns about former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon's abrupt resignation and severance deal.

"As a part of that, he had to sign a confidentiality agreement. And that's something that I think a lot of people say and say, 'wait a minute, this is the top public health director for the state of Michigan, and you're saying that we're not allowed to know some information that he has?' What are they trying to hide from us here?" He adds, "That conversation has really spurred the need for this type of legislation, to make sure that we're not hiding stuff like that."

Johnson, along with 30 other state lawmakers, signed a letter urging the president pro-tem of the senate, Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) to reject Gordon's replacement, MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel's nomination last week.

He says he plans to propose a vote to report HB 4383-92 this week.

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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