Legislative Sunlight — in Michigan and Elsewhere

Michigan is blessed to have a fairly transparent legislative process. Not that we’ve quite achieved perfection in this regard; much of the real legislative decision-making actually happens behind closed doors in party caucuses. But formal voting on bills is not only open; the "yeas and nays" are promptly reported on the Internet.

The Great Lakes State is fortunate in another way: It has MichiganVotes.org, a free Web site that has provided concise, nonpartisan, plain-English descriptions of every legislator’s vote on every bill and amendment since 2001. The database is searchable and sortable by subject category and keyword, so any citizen can create a "custom voting record index" for any legislator on any subject. MichiganVotes.org has leveled the information playing field between Capitol insiders and ordinary citizens.

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All this is in keeping with Michigan’s tradition of relatively clean and open state government. Final votes on bills are all recorded, because the state constitution requires it. Most citizens take this for granted, but they shouldn’t. For example, in Texas, recorded roll calls are not required, and the "legislative culture" is not to have them. Theoretically, the Texas Legislature could raise taxes and every member could plausibly deny voting for it!

That’s an extreme scenario, but other state legislatures have also erected barriers to transparency. These lead to legislative cultures designed to allow lawmakers to evade accountability. Tennessee and Kentucky are examples of states that have taken some measures to expand access to legislative information, but fallen short when it comes to providing key data.

Unlike Texas, these states do require roll calls on final passage votes. That’s nice — but there’s no requirement to publish these on a timely basis. In Kentucky, for example, while journals containing the roll call votes of legislators are published eventually, these may be delayed for months or even years — Kentucky citizens are still waiting for the Spring 2004 legislative journals!

Fortunately, Kentucky has a law similar to the Freedom of Information Act, and legislative roll call votes are not exempted. The House and Senate Clerks will provide copies of individual roll calls as requested on a case-by-case basis. But this can be awkward and time-consuming, especially when votes are coming at a feverish pace during the part-time Legislature’s brief winter session. Plus, citizens who want this information must pay for it!

Such restricted access leads to unfortunate practices. For example, according to Chris Derry, the president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a surprisingly large number of legislators miss each vote in the Bluegrass State. Also, Kentucky legislators are allowed to come back days later and indicate that they have changed their mind on a vote. They can tell folks at home they are on the record as being against a tax hike, even though they voted for it! Indeed, on most bills, some legislators do muddy the water in this fashion.

Also, there is a "tradition" that the Kentucky House and Senate usually vote unanimously to approve bills — even controversial ones where opposition would be expected. For example, Kentucky House Bill 267 of 2005 reportedly increased government spending by the largest margin in the modern era. One would expect at least a handful of minority-party members in the Democrat-controlled House to vote "no." Nope — the bill passed, 100-0.

Well, all that is about to change in Kentucky and Tennessee. By year’s end, the Bluegrass Institute will have described the entire 2005 session of the Kentucky Legislature on "KentuckyVotes.org," and it will be ready to cover the 2006 session in real time. The huge resulting increase in legislative transparency will end some of those accountability-dodging practices.

For example, when the media discover the "Missed Votes Report" showing who missed how many and which votes, many Kentucky legislators will wish they had showed up more. And when electoral primary challengers start using the site’s easily accessible vote data to expose the previously opaque records of entrenched "old bull" lawmakers, look for the "we’re-all-equally-guilty" unanimous vote tradition to join Daniel Boone in the state’s history books.

In Tennessee, legislators can breathe easy for another year — but the Tennessee Center for Policy Research is getting on track to launch TennesseeVotes.org later in 2006. That state is in even greater need of increased transparency. It is now in the midst of an ethics crisis brought about by the indictments of five legislators accused of trading votes for cash.

The Mackinac Center and MichiganVotes.org are proud to be helping courageous freedom fighters in other states open up their legislatures to cleansing sunshine. The Mackinac Center created the "Votes.org" software, and we make it available to other states. As project manager for MichiganVotes.org, I recently spent a week in Kentucky and Tennessee helping reformers there get their vote-tracking sites up and running.

There is a message here for politicians who would like to keep what they do hidden behind closed doors: The time has come for open and accountable government!


Jack McHugh is a legislative analyst for 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.