February 23, 2024

Time for Transparency

Guest Opinion
By Sam Inglot | Feb. 4, 2023

Michigan has some of the worst ethics and transparency rankings in the entire country, and it shows. This is a bipartisan problem that has persisted regardless of which party has been in power. Recent revelations about high-profile investigations of former Republican Michigan House speakers show how desperately more sunlight is needed in Lansing.

Allegations of corruption are swirling around former Republican House speakers Lee Chatfield and Rick Johnson, both of which allege backroom deals were being made with lucrative industry insiders. There’s clearly a problem with transparency in the state legislature, and it’s time to fix it.

Michigan is one of only two states where the governor and legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Filing a FOIA request means that you’re submitting a written request to gather material from a government agency or official to be released publicly, and it’s an important way for the public, journalists, and activists to ensure their elected officials and public services are working for them. That means that under current law, the governor’s office and legislature aren’t legally required to respond to these requests.

Michiganders are fed up with this culture of secrecy, and it’s about time we do something about it. These disclosure laws affect our ability and right to hold elected officials accountable. A majority of Michiganders want change: Polling finds that nearly three-quarters of Michigan voters support expanding disclosure requirements. This is not about Republicans versus Democrats; it’s about holding lawmakers and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle to a higher standard and eventually bringing back some sense of trust to state government.

There’s no shortage of footnotes for why more transparency is needed, or how FOIA has helped blow the lid off some major scandals. Whether it’s just within the past year or decade, we’ve seen how a lack of transparency created problems and how more accessible ways to check on our government helped fix them. From the abysmal management of the Flint Water Crisis; to disastrous privatized public services like the Aramark food contract in our state prisons; to the recent investigations of Chatfield and Johnson regarding the influence of lobbyists; there are past and present problems that scream for a change.

There is no reason the legislature and governor’s office should not be held to the same level of transparency as local governments, state departments, and the attorney general and secretary of state. Every year in the legislature, there’s a big to-do about FOIA reform, and this year will likely be no different, but we’re hopeful that the legislature will work to finally get it done right.

Our lawmakers should ensure that fulfilling FOIA requests is not burdensome when it comes to cost or the time it takes to get them in the hands of the requester. And there needs to be a way for the public and journalists to utilize the checks and balances of the court system to fight for record releases that are denied.

At Progress Michigan, we’ve outlined a policy platform through Close Lansing Loopholes that would have made Michigan a gold standard in FOIA and lobbying reform. The COVID crisis put the brakes on that effort, but we feel it’s a strong playbook for our lawmakers to follow to finally get this solution across the finish line.

Protecting public records and their ability to be accessed without any special rules or carve-outs for lawmakers must be the bare minimum for good government.

We’re hoping the legislature will be a key partner with us in stamping out potential corruption, exposing conflicts of interest, and ensuring lawmakers are held to a higher standard of public trust–but we also know that alone isn’t a silver bullet. We need to keep encouraging a culture of openness in Lansing that refuses corporate influence and the outsized influence of big-business lobbyists.

In order to build a more sustainable, equitable, and welcoming state, we need a government that works for everyone.

It’s about time that we get our elected officials to stand behind some common sense reforms to bring back some faith and trust in our system. It’s a problem that has been talked about for a long time, but nothing has ever been done about it–so why wait any longer?

Sam Inglot is the deputy director of Progress Michigan, a nonprofit communications advocacy and government watchdog group.

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