In the wake of the Flint water crisis will Lansing politicos ever get serious about increasing transparency and accountability of state government? Well, if past history is any guide the answer is likely to be NO.
MIRS, a newsletter covering the activities of Michigan state government, recently ran a story telling you all you need to know about Lansing’s true interest in providing Michigan citizens with open and transparent government. Their story on January 22, 2016 started with:
"A Republican-sponsored bill to expand the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was sent last week to the House Government Operations Committee, the panel where dicey legislation is typically sent to die."
In the normal legislative process a bill is first sent to a committee for deliberation and review prior to being sent to the full chamber, either the State House or the State Senate. While many bills are proposed by legislators, very few bills make it to the full chamber for a vote. Most bills never make it past the committee process. In Lansing lingo, “most bills die in committee.” Bills that don’t make it out of committee won’t be voted upon by the full chamber. This maintains the status quo.
The bill referenced in the MIRS article is HB-5216, sponsored by State Representative John Bizon (R-Battle Creek). As MIRS indicates, HB-5216 will likely die in committee for that is the fate of bills assigned to the House Government Operations Committee.
When House Republican leadership, sometimes referred to as the “establishment,” doesn’t want a bill to pass they assign it to the House Government Operations Committee (HGOC). Why? Well, members of the HGOC are hand-picked by House leadership based upon their fealty to the establishment. HGOC members will cast their votes to please House Republican leadership.
So how was it that HB-5216 was assigned to HGOC? Who made the decision to tacitly kill these FOIA reforms? It was none other than the top dog in the House, Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant). As with all bills brought before the Michigan House, it is the Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter who has complete authority to assign the bill to whatever committee he chooses. So, if the Speaker wants to kill a bill he assigns it to the HGOC knowing full well that his friends on the committee will do his bidding.
With respect to HB-5216, MIRS has it right when they report that Representative Bizon’s bill will likely die in committee. Leadership has no interest in subjecting themselves, or any of their buddies in the Legislative or Executive branches to scrutiny by the citizens of Michigan. Yes, our legislative leaders do not want YOU to have the information necessary to truly hold them accountable for their actions and decisions.
By assigning HB-5216 to the HGOC, House leadership provides their constituents with the appearance of caring about the issue of government transparency and accountability. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Assigning the bill to the HGOC allows duplicitous legislators to inform constituents that progress is being made on FOIA, all the while knowing that it is pre-ordained that nothing will be done.
Further evidence that Lansing leaders want to stifle transparency can be found by viewing prior bills that have been assigned to the HGOC. Most telling is HB-4283, another bill which would remove the FOIA exemption that the legislative and executive branches of Michigan government currently enjoy. HB-4283 was introduced by State Representative Brandon Dillion (D) and assigned to the HGOC on March 4, 2015.
Wait there is more! Looking back at previous legislative sessions you’ll see that Rep Dillion introduced HB-4302 on February 21, 2013. Again, this bill would remove the aforementioned FOIA exemptions, and again this bill was assigned to die in the HGOC.
Oh, by the way, the Michigan State Senate also has its version of the HGOC. It is called the Senate Government Operations Committee (SGOC). And yes, if you examine the record you’ll see that bills introduced to remove Lansing’s FOIA exemptions have been assigned the Senate’s version of the “bill death chamber.” On February 13, 2013, Senate Bill 202 was assigned to die in the SGOC, while on March 5, 2015, Senate Bill 181 suffered the same fate.
*[The phrase “bill death chamber” doesn’t always describe the Government Operations Committees as sometimes leadership uses these committees to ram pet legislation through – but that is a story for another day.]
Lack of transparency in Michigan is nothing new; it has been that this way for decades. Michigan is joined by just a handful of states which have these broad exemptions to FOIA. A study conducted by The Detroit Free Press found, “Michigan is one of only two states in which the governor has a blanket exemption from public record laws. The other is Massachusetts, which also is one of fewer than a dozen states where state lawmakers have a blanket exemption.”
With the recent Flint water crisis there is more vigorous discussion in Lansing about expanding FOIA. The Gadsden Center and our sister organization, The Gadsden Center Foundation, will be closely engaged in this discussion and debate. We are committed to working with any and all groups across the political spectrum to achieve transparent government for the citizens of Michigan. We will keep you posted on our progress. In the meantime, we urge citizens interested in transparent and accountable government to call their legislators let them know that you support expanding FOIA to cover the executive and legislative branches in Lansing.
Update - After completing this article The Gadsden Center was informed that another bill expanding FOIA to cover the executive and legislative branches was submitted and then promptly assigned to the "bill death chamber" operated by the State Senate. For bills introduced in the Senate, it is the Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) who decides which committee the bill is assigned to. Senate Bill 0716 was introduced on January 21, 2016 by State Senator Coleman Young (D-Detroit). It was assigned to the Senate Government Operation Committee on the same date.