(Editor's note: The following commentary is an edited version of a letter recently sent to Mackinac Center supporters by President Joseph G. Lehman.)
If anyone asks me why we need more open, transparent government, I'll just hand over a letter we recently received from the Michigan Department of State Police. The department responded to our request for public documents with a bill for nearly $7 million!
The department won't reveal the information we requested for one penny less than $6,876,303.90. They want a down payment of $3,438,151.95 before they start making the 2 million photocopies they say it will take to meet our request.
That seemed high to us, so we asked around. So far, we have not found any unit of government anywhere that asked for that much to fill a public records request. Sunshine Review, the national clearinghouse for public records related to local and state governments, now lists the Michigan State Police as the new record holder.
What information did we ask for that would cost $7 million to produce? We simply requested documents related to how the state police spent nearly $260 million in federal homeland security grants since 2002. Mackinac Center analysts learned that millions of dollars of such funds have been wasted and misused in other states. In 2008, Michigan's inspector general spot-checked homeland security spending in just seven counties and turned up numerous problems, including difficulty locating emergency equipment, and unsatisfactory accountability of items bought with taxpayer funds.
Our analysts are digging deeper to learn if the Michigan State Police are exemplary stewards of the public purse, just as wasteful as the worst states or somewhere in between. That's important to know for a department whose budget Gov. Jennifer Granholm has tried to cut.
The $7 million charge for answering our request doesn't get us much closer to answering the wastefulness question, but it does raise some new ones. For instance, how eager is the department to show the public how it spends public money? If it costs $7 million just to show how it spends homeland security grants, how efficient can the department be? Do department officials hope that sending us a $7 million bill will discourage us and make us go away?
That's not likely. The Mackinac Center is experienced and tenacious at obtaining public information and making it easily accessible to all. We routinely acquire public documents from all 551 of Michigan's public school districts (the majority of which are responsive and cooperative). We built the state's only databases of legislative voting records and bill descriptions, school collective bargaining agreements and school spending. We compiled Michigan's largest document library on corporate tax incentive programs outside of state filing cabinets.
We successfully persuaded scores of school districts to voluntarily post their spending online, just like a check register. We're about to release the state's only database of school district health insurance costs. High-spending districts will learn how much they can save, and residents will learn how school employee benefits compare to those of average taxpayers.
Occasionally, government officials are uncooperative regarding our requests under the Freedom of Information Act, a very powerful law. We don't like to do it, but we have sued when they have failed to produce public documents as required. We have never lost one of those lawsuits.
More often than not, we are able to work informally with officials to get information our analysts need. State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner admitted to Reporting Michigan, a news Web site, that their $7 million bill "sounds outrageous and it is." We have approached officials about alternate ways to get the spending information, but it's slow going. In 2007, Gannett News Service (Gannett owns USA Today) named Michigan as one of the three "least cooperative" among 15 states from which they requested records on homeland security spending.
But there is more at stake than one information request of one state agency. The Mackinac Center's examination of government programs is more important than ever as newspapers and news broadcasters slash their reporting staffs.
It was Mackinac Center researchers, not news media, who recently exposed the Michigan Film Office's failure to report their spending as the law requires, reported a quiet attempt to mandate costly fire sprinklers in new homes built in Michigan and uncovered the union-driven motives behind a massive "government-reform" initiative. After we publicized these findings, film officials complied with the law, an expensive mandate was defeated and a ballot measure intended to lock Democrats into control of state government for a generation collapsed.
If agencies can stonewall on how they spend our money, we won't know if they actually need more revenue to carry out their duties or if there are simply better ways to spend the revenue they have.
Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.