Michigan House Democrats will return to Lansing in January without a majority until probably late April, when special elections in Dem-heavy Westland and Warren are conducted.
Until then, Democrats can’t pass a Paid Family Leave Act, a drug affordability board or any other progressive policy, for that matter.
Never fear! The temporary split-control situation creates a perfect chance to address the issue Lansing loves to talk about to score political points, but only acts on under severe pressure: transparency.
Transparency in government used to be the issue only journalists and people on “the outside” cared about. That attitude seems to be shifting.
Last month, Progress Michigan found that a 25% plurality ranked government transparency and lobbying reform as their top issue to close out the 2023 legislative session, ahead of affordable housing (16%), “holding utilities accountable” (16%) and abortion reform (15%).
As it turns out, the Legislature did something on the transparency front, but only because Proposal 1 of 2022 forced them to do it.
Come next year, the Legislature, governor, secretary of state, attorney general and those running for those positions must publicly reveal where they get their income.
Nobody needs to cough up tax returns. Nobody needs to bear their financial soul to the world. Spouses and dependents don’t need to report whence they get their money, unless it’s lobbying.
Whether a legislative candidate makes $1 million a year as a CEO or $25,000 cleaning toilets, they’re checking the same box: that they made $1,000 or more a year from (fill in the blank).
This isn’t the gold standard of financial disclosure, but it follows the Constitution. So, it’s something, I guess.
With the House at a 54-54 split, both parties have something to lose or gain. It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to hold hands and take the plunge on something greater: expanding the Freedom of Information Act to themselves and disclosing all business-related travel.
This isn’t bringing back “FOIA Lite” that the so-called Speaker Lee Chatfield & Friends passed three sessions in a row, the one where the House and Senate follows its own hole-riddled disclosure law. This is about lawmakers following the same FOIA law that local governments, school boards and the state bureaucracy must follow.
Same with the governor.
We can all appreciate the governor’s tight security after having her life threatened. Still, if the public isn’t making sure she is following the Constitution when she relinquishes her powers to the lieutenant governor when she’s outside of Michigan, who will?
Documents related to her past out-of-state travel must be fair game for disclosure.
Likewise, all business-related travel for lawmakers must be publicly disclosed, even if it’s a week or two after the fact.
With groups like the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, National Popular Vote and the Beer & Wine Wholesalers traditionally welcoming legislators for lightly disclosed learning events in tropical locations, constituents deserve to know who has influence and who does not.
The bill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign soon calls for only the disclosure of lobbyist-paid travel. Groups routinely get around this by saying that nobody is being directly lobbied to do this, that or the other thing.
Ok. Why was the Senate majority leader in Brazil? How many legislators toured Israel this year?
Without public disclosure, this information is only discovered second or third hand. If this type of reform isn’t disclosed during a split, 54-54 House, who is going to make sure it happens?
The majority will not. They benefit from the secret pots of money and influence that help them keep a majority, regardless of whether we’re talking Republicans or Democrats. House Republicans only passed open records laws in the prior three sessions when they knew the Senate would kill them.
They got the PR pop without having to live with the policy.
Now, with a House that has no majority until April, everybody is equally impacted by an open records law. It’s the perfect time for sunshine.
(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at email@example.com.)
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