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Feb. 24—Michigan is a national laggard in holding its government officials to tight standards of transparency, fairness and accountability. But proposed laws are moving through the Legislature that could help restore trust in state government.
Among the proposals already introduced are measures that would make it harder to slam through legislation during lame-duck sessions — the period between an election and the end of the legislative term — when outgoing lawmakers are no longer accountable to voters.
The bills introduced by House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to pass a bill in a lame-duck session.
"I kept hearing from people who were losing faith in their elected officials and their government, and I wanted to be committed to fixing that," Wentworth says about his push for ethics and transparency. "That's why I wanted to get on this right out of the gate and put my name on this resolution."
Lame-duck lawmaking is problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that departing lawmakers do not have to answer to voters for actions.
In addition, the rapid-fire pace of lawmaking in the few weeks of lame duck can lead to sloppy work, with the consequences of legislation not fully vetted.
"A lot of people are concerned and say that this is problematic because there are issues that may come before the Legislature during a lame-duck session, and they say that this would slow down the response," Wentworth says. "But if it's good policy, it'll pass. This requires us to work together."
Wentworth hopes the change will keep lawmakers working on the normal legislative calendar instead of waiting until after an election to move often partisan bills through at the last minute
Another bill from Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, would prohibit lawmakers from voting on legislation if they or their family members could benefit from it, professionally or personally.
This common-sense requirement should be made law on a unanimous vote.
We would also like to see financial holding disclosures for legislators when they take office to show they don't have personal interests in business before the Legislature.
Wentworth says he is open to debating such financial disclosures in this session. He pointed out that it's common practice at the federal level, and only reasonable it be required in Lansing.
There are other pieces to the transparency plan in the pipeline, including reforms that would finally provide more accountability and access to the state's executive and legislative branches.
Wentworth expects to see legislation introduced that would make the office of the governor subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Legislature subject to the Legislative Open Records Act.
The importance of putting the executive branch under FOIA has been demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office has kept a tight lid on information related to pandemic policymaking.
Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states where the governor gets a pass on providing public records, and the exemption for the Legislature is only found in seven other states.
There's a lot of work to do to make Michigan government more transparent. A good start is the passage of these common-sense reforms.