This column originally appeared in the Detroit News.
In 2003, 2004, and 2005, then state Rep. Gretchen Whitmer voted for budget bills with specific language designed to protect government whistleblowers from punishment and recrimination should they notify lawmakers about waste, fraud, abuse or any other malfeasance inside their state department.
In 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, then state Sen. Whitmer voted for the same language to safeguard government whistleblowers.
The language was straightforward. It was routine. It had been signed into law by a Democratic governor – former Attorney General Jennifer Granholm – and by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
It was again part of the 2019 budget presented to now Gov. Whitmer:
“A department or state agency shall not take disciplinary action against an employee for communicating with a member of the Legislature or his or her staff.”
The sentence’s purpose, support and acceptance remained a clear declaration from the legislative branch that employees of the coequal executive branch could communicate with their elected officials freely and without risk of reprisal, especially when something suspect was happening on the job.
There was no dark secret, no dirty dealing that state workers would ever be forced to hide for fear of losing their jobs or paychecks.
Yet an odd thing happened when that young legislative stalwart for transparency and good government became governor. She flip-flopped.
Just before the stroke of midnight on Sept. 30, Whitmer produced an astounding and unprecedented 147-line item vetoes to bipartisan budget bills. She cut $375 million in road funding. She cut funding to fix a bridge she’d only months ago claimed was in such disrepair it kept her up at night. She cut funding for public school kids and teachers in public schools that disproportionately serve low income and minority students. She cut rural state police patrols and funding for parents whose children are navigating life with autism.
And she declared publicly that as governor she would not enforce the whistleblower protections she’d supported as a legislator. She declared it 13 different times; once for each budget that contained the good government language.
It’s just the latest disappointing reminder that Michigan’s current governor is turning out to be just another politician who says one thing, does another. Whitmer is failing to make Lansing work for the people who elected her.
The governor’s penchant for pithy quips fails to obscure the facts that her actions have done more to make Lansing less transparent and put government less on the side of working families.
Voters would find it hard to forget her frequent campaign-trail promises to expand government transparency and to open her office up to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Sure, she issued an executive order built around a few modest transparency talking points, but when pushed to keep her campaign pledge, she’s refused. Voters have no greater access to records, emails, and files produced on their dime in and around the governor’s office than they did previously.
Nixing whistleblower protections, though, goes a step further down a dangerous path. Instead of maintaining the status quo, Whitmer’s decision to gut a longstanding public check on abuse within the executive branch will invariably have a chilling effect on the willingness of brave men and women to sound the alarm over wrongdoing inside our government.
The governor’s decision to turn the lights out on executive branch transparency rightly leaves voters wondering – just what is it she’s hoping to hide in the dark and whose side is she on?
Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.