When Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1977, it contained huge loopholes which have prevented full access to government records. The legislative branch as well as the Office of the Governor and Lt. Governor are exempted from FOIA requirements that apply to state agencies.
We are a national outlier. Only two states, Michigan and Massachusetts, exempt the Governor’s Office and Legislature from FOIA.
Voters Not Politicians has been working since 2019 to close that loophole. In 2019, a bipartisan group of legislators tried to pass a suite of ethics and transparency reforms. They attempted to expand FOIA to the Governor’s Office while creating a weaker, separate law for the Legislature. But the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) lacked several key features of the current FOIA that every other state agency must adhere to, including judicial review and damages and fines, while placing enforcement solely in the hands of the regulated bodies. Ultimately the measure was insufficient and failed to move through the legislature, leaving Michigan as a bottom-tier state in government transparency.
In 2023, VNP once again turned our attention to structural democracy reforms that are best achieved by working legislatively, including FOIA expansion as one of our top legislative priorities. In the fall of 2023, we knocked on doors in 7 house districts to talk to voters about the need for FOIA expansion and other anti-corruption reforms. We also deployed our team of volunteer legislative liaisons to discuss VNP’s ideal implementation of FOIA with their legislators at in-district events.
VNP’s recommended implementation of FOIA, based on extensive research by our own volunteer Policy Committee, would include the following:
- Expanding existing FOIA requirements to include the Governor’s office and the legislature. This expansion will give voters insight into how decisions are made, how policy is formulated, who influences policy discussions and decision making, and how state resources are managed.
- To reduce the roadblocks which inhibit public utilization of FOIA, we recommend the formation of an independent state FOIA ombudsman office, which reports to a FOIA oversight commission. At least 20 states have established FOIA Ombudsman offices and 12 states have created enforcement commissions. We can establish both the ombudsman office and oversight commission using successful models from these other states (such as Connecticut, Iowa, and Maryland).
The ombudsman office would educate the public on how to navigate FOIA and draft more precise FOIA requests; conduct training for public agencies on processes for effective FOIA compliance; provide mediation services to resolve disputes; staff an informational hotline; issue advisory opinions; publish an annual report, citizen’s guide, forms for filing a complaint and other publications that will enhance an overall understanding of the FOIA; and provide legislative leaders with recommendations on proposed statutory changes to FOIA.
Just this past December, Senators Jeremy Moss (SD 7) and Ed McBroom (SD 38) introduced senate bills 669 and 670, a bipartisan bill package that will expand Michigan’s existing FOIA to the Michigan legislature and the offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. With a strong, pro-voter legislature and executive branch, advancing this common sense legislation is finally within our grasp.