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Including lawmakers in FOIA could help provide answers when they're under scrutiny

The Michigan State Capitol is photographed, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) The trees are green and the fountain is running as people walk by on the mall.
Carlos Osorio
The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, May 24, 2023.

Transparency advocates say it's harder to learn who’s telling the truth when the current law exempts state legislators.

Earlier this year, a group of Republican state lawmakers accused Democratic Rep. Jim Haadsma of a coverup. The claim raises questions about Michigan's open records laws.

The Republicans said that Haadsma, of Battle Creek, helped conceal that a labor lobbyist named Jonathan Byrd allegedly committed a sexual assault at a Democratic fundraiser last year. Haadsma denies that. He says he covered up nothing.

Steve Delie is with the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. He said the public might know more about what happened, and whether Republicans’ claims have merit, if Michigan had better Freedom of Information Act(FOIA) laws.

“It's going to be very difficult to get any records related to this, because so much of the activity happened on the legislative side, which is immune to FOIA,” said Delie.

For years, transparency advocates have called on Michigan lawmakers to expand the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Specifically, they want FOIA to cover the legislature and governor’s office. Michigan is one of two states that does this. Massachusetts is the other.

Lisa McGraw is with the with the Michigan Press Association. She agreed that the public might know if Republicans’ claims had merit if FOIA included lawmakers. She said there’s harm is in not expanding the law, because it erodes public trust.

“The more we know, the more that they allow us to know, the more faith we all have in our elected officials,” McGraw said.

Democrats have said for years that they would end the FOIA exemption for lawmakers and the governor if they gained power. Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) said people can expect that to happen. She said bills to end excluding the legislature and governor from FOIA will likely be introduced in the fall.

“We already subscribed to the Open Meetings Act, of course. But bringing in FOIA and having the legislature be under FOIA, I think is important.”

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.