During the first week of February, the official homepages of Michigan State Reps. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester, and Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids, acquired a prominently displayed "Government Transparency" hyperlink that allowed everyone with a Web browser to learn the names and salaries of these legislators' staff. In office for just over a month, this simple decision likely meant that the new lawmakers had become the only state officials to be so open with Michigan taxpayers regarding who is working for them and how much they are paid.
This example should be followed by all of the state's elected officials. Salaries are a large percentage of every government's expenditures and a politician's taxpayer-funded staff is a powerful tool that can be used for both good government... and not so good.
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is just one example of the latter. During May 2007, the Detroit Free Press revealed that the Kilpatrick administration had an unprecedented number of friends and family who had been given jobs by the mayor. None had then complied with a city ethics ordinance requiring them to disclose their relationships to elected officials. Ultimately, the mayor was forced to leave office because he and one close friend on his payroll — his chief of staff — were both jailed for felony convictions of lying under oath.
Every taxpayer should be able to quickly look up who works for them and what they are being paid. These two new lawmakers have demonstrated that making this information easy to find is easy to do. But the vast majority of state government doesn't do it.
Last June, the Mackinac Center's "Show Michigan the Money" transparency project suggested a number of detailed state expenditures that Gov. Jennifer Granholm could post online for taxpayer inspection, including the names and salaries of state employees. Rejecting these suggestions, a letter from the Office of the Governor said of the names and salaries that "this level of detail provides little value to the taxpayer."
Likewise, during 2007 the Lansing State Journal submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the Michigan Department of Civil Service for the names, titles and salaries of every classified (i.e. not politically appointed) state employee. This became an impressive public database showing this information for every such person then working for the state. Non-classified political appointees — such as the staff working directly for lawmakers and the governor — are not subject to FOIA and thus could be obtained only if the office of the politician hiring the appointee gave it to the paper. "Gov. Granholm's office," according to the newspaper, "would not disclose the salaries of her staff, nor would the governor's office disclose the number of employees serving on her or the lieutenant governor's staff."
Ironically, in its response to the Show Michigan the Money request, the Office of the Governor also asserts that Gov. Granholm "has made government transparency and fiscal accountability defining principles of Michigan government" since she took office. The letter further notes a Web site with "expenditure information" that shows only general dollar figures with almost no specific details regarding who is getting the public's money and how much they are getting.
"Transparency" can be a buzzword that means whatever a politician wants it to mean, and many define it as no more than what they want to publicly reveal. There's a world of difference between a governor who has talked but done little about transparency for six years, despite being repeatedly asked to, and a pair of lawmakers who set an example just weeks after being sworn into office by bringing the issue home to the names and salaries of the people working for them.
The Lansing State Journal deserves a debt of gratitude from all Michigan taxpayers for being one of the very first institutions to try and provide a public and detailed map of who is being paid by state government. But this responsibility really belongs with the elected officials writing the checks and there's a long way to go before their rhetoric meets reality. When Lansing politicians have been talking the transparency talk for years, brand new legislators shouldn't find it so easy to be so remarkable.
Kenneth M. Braun is a policy analyst specializing in fiscal and budgetary issues at 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.