A House committee has approved a package of bills to expand the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to cover the governor and the legislature, with a few exemptions.
That has happened before, but Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof buried it. It looks like he might do that again this year.
“I don’t really think it’s necessary, you know, we already provide everything on our salaries, our benefits, our staff – every tax dollar is debated openly, publicly,” Meekhof said. “I don’t know what more it is that can be gained.”
Ken Sikkema, senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants and a former Republican legislative leader, and Vicki Barnett, the former mayor of Farmington Hills and a former Democratic legislator, joined Stateside to talk about the possible FOIA expansion.
Michigan was recently ranked last in the country in government transparency. It's one of two states (Massachusetts is the other) where the governor's office is completely exempt from FOIA requests.
Sikkema said he has "some empathy with Sen. Meekhof's skepticism" but thinks he will ultimately give in to the political pressure and pass FOIA reform.
Sikkema also thinks there will be some unintended consequences of greater transparency.
"I think it's going to change the way communication goes on in the legislature and the executive branch, and I think ... in the future, [there's going to be] greater reliance on what is now very ancient ways of communicating: by phone and face to face," Sikkema said. "[Politicians are] going to avoid email. And I think, actually, that's a good thing."
Barnett is happy to see greater transparency as a possibility in Lansing. She echoed Sikkema's prediction of improved communication.
"The idea of legislators actually sitting down and talking to one another is something that we've been missing in the legislative process since term limits," Barnett said. "There's a lot of effort to move things and fix it quickly and not discuss the open consequences of some of the actions. And with a FOIA request ability and the sunshine laws, it will require people to begin to defend why they are doing something and to talk to their constituents about it, and to the press, and I think that's a good thing."
Listen to the full interview above to hear more about some of the pros and cons of greater transparency in government and about some of the exemptions that are being debated in Lansing.