This article originally appeared in the Detroit News March 16 2023.
On March 12, daylight saving time began. The change pushes sunset back by an hour, bringing us more sunlight in the evening. But there’s one area where sunshine is still sorely lacking: Michigan government. That needs to change.
In 2018, then-gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer released her platform on government accountability, titled “Get it Done: Michigan Sunshine Plan.” The plan was ambitious, with 10 steps to improve government transparency. Much of the plan has gone unfulfilled, unfortunately.
Take, for instance, her second step, which pledges “greater transparency requirements for the MEDC.”
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is the state body responsible for distributing taxpayer dollars to select companies in corporate welfare deals. If Michigan is going to be in the business of picking winners and losers, it should at least do it transparently. As a candidate, Gov. Whitmer recognized this, stating, “MEDC is going to have to disclose what they are willing to offer to businesses and hold them accountable for the promises they make on job creation.”
That was in 2018, and it is now 2023. The governor recently signed legislation that will give private companies $3 billion. And that’s just this year.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, seeking to learn about other handouts, sent the MEDC a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of nondisclosure agreements it made with private companies from 2018 to present. If the MEDC produced the documents, the people of Michigan would at least be able to identify which companies have deals with the agency. It’s a far cry from the “100% transparency” Whitmer promised of the department, but it’s a start.
The MEDC charged us $5,700 for obtaining these records. Even when we narrowed our request to only the first two pages of each contract, our bill was still nearly $1,000. It would be hard to describe that as a fair price for transparency.
Other aspects of the governor’s transparency plan have not fared much better. Take, for instance, her pledge to expand FOIA to include the Legislature and the governor’s office. Michigan is one of only two states that exempt these branches from FOIA law. The governor pledged, in her plan, to “use the governor’s authority under the Michigan State Constitution to extend FOIA” to include these offices if the Legislature didn’t act.
Five years later, both the Legislature and the governor remain immune from public records requests.
Other aspects of her plan are in jeopardy, with the governor now actively working against some of the better reforms contained in the plan. Last week, the House of Representatives passed bills to repeal right to work. Each bill contained an appropriation of money, which makes them referendum-proof. Bills without appropriations can be put before the people of Michigan, who would then have the opportunity to vote on them.
The governor is aware of this: She promised, in her sunshine plan, to veto any legislation that used one-off appropriations to deny the people their voice. Her position at the time was clear: “If a non-appropriations bill has a dollar amount added to circumvent the people’s right to a referendum and it reaches my desk, I will veto it.”
Let’s hope that’s the case. Michigan’s right-to-work law is popular, and the people of Michigan have already rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned right-to-work laws. The governor should honor their wishes and keep her promise by vetoing a repeal with an appropriation attached.
Another aspect of the governor’s sunshine plan that is in jeopardy is her promise to reform campaign finance. In 2018, her position was that “more money in politics is not the answer,” and she pledged to take on so-called super PACs.
Last week, however, Democratic Party legislators introduced House Bills 4230-4237. If passed, these bills would permit unions to operate as super PACs, but without many of the accompanying regulations. Unions could spend money on politics without having to follow the rules that apply to corporations or other organizations.
Many of the reforms proposed by Whitmer in 2018 would improve transparency in Michigan. While they have gone unfulfilled, it isn’t too late to make a change.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
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