It's a preposterous stance for a public servant who owes his title, his salary and the services of his large staff to Michigan taxpayers.
But it's also the law.
Since 1986, when then-Attorney General Frank Kelley ruled that Michigan's governor and legislative branch were exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act, Meekhof and his predecessors have conspired with big campaign donors and special-interest lobbyists to cook up all manner of legislative mischief, secure in the knowledge that their conversations and correspondence would remain concealed from public scrutiny.
Two years ago, when the Michigan House of Representatives finally surrendered to demands for greater transparency by passing legislation that significantly limited the Legislature's exemption from FOIA laws, Meekhof made sure it never came up for a vote in the state Senate.
In 2017, when the Michigan House revived its initiative (this time by a unanimous vote), the Senate ignored the legislation again.
A year ago this month, when he took questions in a roomful of publishers, editors and reporters gathered in Grand Rapids for the Michigan Press Association, Meekhof made no apologies for his continuing opposition to greater transparency.
The public scrutiny journalists sought to impose on the legislative process would only make it harder for lawmakers to have candid discussions with the governor, their constituents and one another, he said. When some reporters asked whether voters might interpret his passion for secrecy as a tacit admission that he and his colleagues had something to hide, the Senate majority leader shrugged.
"You guys are the only people who care about this," he said.
But that's not quite true.
Last February, just a few weeks after Meekhof's assertion that only nosy reporters were interested in reading lawmakers' emails, Tesla Motors startled legislators and lobbyists alike by subpoenaing correspondence between two of Meekhof's Republican colleagues and the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association.
Tesla is challenging the constitutionality of a 2015 Michigan law that restricts the direct sale of its battery-powered vehicles to would-be purchasers in Michigan. In a lawsuit pending before Grand Rapids-based U.S. District Judge Janet Neff, the automaker alleges that the dealers association collaborated with Sen. Joe Hune, R-Fowlerville, and Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Lambertville, to draft legislative language that placed Tesla at a competitive disadvantage to car and truck manufacturers who sell their vehicles through franchised dealerships.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed the disputed legislation into law in 2014 after it passed both houses of the state Legislature. Hune, Sheppard and other lawmakers who work on the bill deny that it was designed to disadvantage Tesla, but they have joined the auto dealers in a year-long battle to quash Tesla's subpoenas.
Late last year, another plaintiff challenging Michigan's law banning merchant-to-consumer shipments by out-of-state wine retailers dispatched similar subpoenas. Like Tesla, Lebamoff Enterprises, an Indiana-based retailer that operates 15 wine stores in Fort Wayne, asserts in its lawsuit that legislators — abetted in this instance by lobbyists for the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association — tailored regulations to keep Lebamoff and other out-of-state retailers from competing with Michigan-based wine merchants.
With members in virtually every one of the state's legislative districts, the auto dealers association and the beer and wine wholesalers are among the most free-spending and effective lobbies in Lansing. Each has spent millions of dollars to curry favor with generations of elected officials from both parties, and both are apoplectic at the prospect of communications between their paid lobbyists and their legislative water carriers becoming public.
The auto dealers have spent the better part of a year trying to persuade Neff, the judge presiding over Tesla's lawsuit, that compulsory disclosure of its communications with legislators would be a violation of the powerful lobby's first amendment rights, impose a "chilling effect" on future communications between special interests and lawmakers. What the lobbyists and the legislators resisting subpoenas are fighting to preserve isn't just their trade secrets, but a lifestyle that depends on secrecy.
Earlier this year, when Neff ruled that the auto dealers association was obliged to provide Tesla with much of the information, the auto dealers quickly appealed her decision to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Steve Young, a lobbyist whose multi-client firm Government Consultant Services Inc. represents the wine and beer wholesalers association, expressed his industry's indignation succinctly when he described the subpoenas as little more than a tantrum by plaintiffs who'd been defeated fair and square on the political playing field.
"These people are legislative losers, and they should go back to Indiana and stay there," Young told a reporter for the Michigan Information and Research Service after his firm's communications with lawmakers were subpoenaed in the lawsuit filed by Lebamoff Enterprises. "The Legislature spoke on this, and this is nothing more than an effort to choke communications."
Young's contempt for the idea that out-of-state merchants have any business meddling with the protectionist law that he and some sympathetic state lawmakers ginned up is exactly the sort of thing the framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about when they prohibited restraints on interstate commerce.
But what's more noteworthy, if you're a humble Michigan consumer in the market for a car or a case of wine, is the lobbyists' presumption that what lawmakers and the businesses they regulate do behind closed doors is none of the public's business.
To be clear, the House-passed legislation that would end the Legislature's exemption form Michigan's FOIA — that's the package Meekhof has kept bottled up in the state Senate for the last two years — wouldn't be much help to citizens trying to find out what legislators and lobbyists are hatching together. The House bills specifically protect communications between lawmakers and their constituents from public scrutiny.
And even in states where more muscular FOIA laws guarantee public access to legislative business, similar exemptions can make it difficult for ordinary citizens (or journalists) to obtain the sort of records Tesla and Lebamoff Enterprises are trying to subpoena.
But why should such information be privileged? Who do Michigan's legislators work for, anyways?
If I'm shopping for an electric car and my elected representatives in Lansing want to make it harder for me to buy a Tesla than a Chevy or a Nissan, don't I have a right to know why — and what Chevrolet and Nissan dealers might have promised lawmakers in return for favorable treatment?
If a retailer in Indiana or Ohio is willing to ship me Champagne for my daughter's wedding for less than the wine merchant down the street, aren't I entitled to know why my state senators and representatives won't let me buy it from him?
If the arguments lobbyists make in favor of legislation that tilts the playing field in their clients' favor are too embarrassing to make in public, maybe they're lousy arguments. And if legislators don't want the public to know what they're telling their favored "constituents" in private, maybe they should find a job that isn't bankrolled by the taxpayers they want to exclude from those discussions.
I've no idea what's in the correspondence Tesla and Lebamoff are trying to subpoena. But the lengths to which the state's most powerful special interests are going to keep it secret sure makes me curious. Wouldn't you like to know what they're hiding, too?
You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at: [email protected]