OPINION: Extend FOIA to Michigan legislature

This guest commentary is provided by Progress Michigan

An Open Letter from Progress Michigan on FOIA

January 9, 2019

Today, as the Michigan Legislature agrees upon the rules that will guide them throughout the next legislative session, Progress Michigan is urging both chambers to take up a simple rule change to bring a new level of accountability and transparency to Michigan’s government.

The House and Senate should adopt a rule change to apply the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to which they are not currently subject, to themselves.

Since early 2017, Progress Michigan has been calling for this simple fix to a serious problem plaguing Michigan’s democracy. It’s a well-established stain on our state that Michigan has the worst transparency and ethics ranking in the country.

Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield has consistently brought up FOIA reform to various media outlets as he’s discussed priorities for the legislature heading into 2019 and is on the record supporting it in the past as well.

“We have a system of government that is intended to serve the people, and I think it’s time our public records are now open to those people,” Chatfield told Michigan Radio in 2017. “If transparency is good for local governments, then the executive branch and the legislature should be no exception.”

If Chatfield really believes this, there’s no reason he would delay or deny a rule change to open up the House to FOIA. As Governor Gretchen Whitmer has taken steps to increase transparency in state government already, we urge Rep. Chatfield to turn words into action.

If Chatfield is serious about increasing transparency in state government, he and his colleagues in both parties need to apply FOIA to themselves without delay. If he chooses to ignore this chance to do the right thing and take the lead on this issue, it shows his talk of bringing more transparency to state government is nothing but a political charade.

In 2016 and 2017, FOIA reform passed the House with massive bipartisan support. Over a dozen members of the incoming Senate either sponsored or supported FOIA reform when they were in the House, which should be a message to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey that there is the political will — and a public necessity — to make this change happen. Shirkey’s privacy concerns over FOIA expansion are unfounded as FOIA law provides protections against unwarranted invasions of privacy.

The time for FOIA reform is now. This debate has been going on for too long. The stalemate between the House and Senate that caused FOIA reform to die each and every year is not an excuse to continue governing from the shadows.

Enough is enough. There are no more excuses. FOIA reform can and needs to happen today.