Benson asks Legislature to make Michigan ‘worst to first’ for government transparency ⋆
Michigan is one of the worst if not the worst states in terms of government transparency and governmental ethics laws, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Thursday told members of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee.
Notably, Michigan was ranked dead last in a 2015 investigation by the Center For Public Integrity in terms of government transparency and accountability.
Michigan is one of two states that exempts the governor’s office from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The other state is Massachusetts.
The Michigan Legislature is also exempt from FOIA, and Benson has long said she wants to see that change for both those branches of governance, but added Thursday that she’d like to see other forms of accountability and consequences for those who act in their own person interests rather than the interests of the people who who put them in office.
“The good news is there’s a lot of ‘sunshine’ we can welcome into our state with these changes. We have long been the butt of jokes in Michigan and elsewhere. The fact that we have been at the bottom of the Center for Public Integrity index and many other indexes because of our lack of government transparency and ethics requirements,” Benson said. “The great news is that we can go from worst to first by simply implementing national best practices that are in place elsewhere and make Michigan a place, in my view, that is a model for good governing, legislating and leading with integrity.”
Dems, Republicans push FOIA and ethics reforms during Sunshine Week
Benson called for a “close to the revolving door” from government to lobbying by requiring a one year gap in between legislators going into lobbying, and two years for committee chairs and statewide officeholders. She noted the importance of ensuring lawmakers can’t be promised jobs after their terms are over in exchange for passing certain legislation.
“It’s something that will send a clear message to citizens that you’re there for them, and you’re working for them and that you’ll close the door on any potential for any of your colleagues to in any way be influenced unduly by future employers,” Benson said.
High-level staff should also be included in reforms to lobbying legislation to establish that high level staff are also subject to the influence of lobbyists and should be subject to the same disclosure requirements as all elected officials and department heads, Benson said.
“It’s important to remember we’re not going to be pioneers in this regard because even Congress at the federal level still has disclosure requirements and real penalties for non compliance including fines, candidate disqualification and even prosecution.
Government transparency has been a relatively unifying issue for Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, with state Sens. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) spearheaded bills in the past to get FOIA expansions through the previously Republican-led Legislature.
There was an “obstacle” to getting some laws surrounding transparency to the Senate floor, Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) said during committee. Benson corrected her saying, “There was a person who was an obstacle.”
“He who shall not be named,” Hope said, noting GOP former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s well-known opposition to FOIA applying to the Legislature, citing concerns it might inhibit officials from talking with one another.
Campaign finance disclosures are an important element to transparency, Benson noted, Michigan could ban all gifts above the federal threshold to officeholders and their staff.
Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte) talked about the difficulty of going from being a career teacher to running for public office because she wanted to help change things, but not knowing all the campaign finance rules.
Benson reiterated that if the state is going to realistically make over its transparency rules, there will need to be funding to provide education and resources so that concerned citizens like Churches will be able to run for office.
“Yes, there are bad actors, there are individuals who would willingly intentionally skirt the laws, but there are many who simply just don’t realize a certain filing is due or have non-compliance as a reflection of something other than intentional will to to not comply,” Benson said.
With Thursday’s discussion, the committee is still sitting on a package of bills introduced in March to implement much of what Benson recommended Thursday. This is the last scheduled meeting before the Legislature takes its summer recess.
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authored by Anna Liz Nichols
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