Bill To Prohibit Public Info Charges

March 14, 2003
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LANSING — A proposed Senate bill would prohibit state agencies from profiting from supplying public information.

Sen. Tony Stamas, R-Midland, introduced the bill, which targets state departments that use fee-based telephone numbers to charge callers seeking public information.

“Hard-working, tax-paying residents should not have to pay phone charges to get information that would otherwise be free, and state agencies and departments should not be profiting from it,” Stamas said. “My bill forbids the state from collecting this type of income from Michigan’s citizens.”

Agencies using 900 numbers include the Lottery Bureau and the Department of Consumer and Industry Services. The fees are as much as $1.50 per minute to access information about health provider licensing and lottery drawings.

However, these agencies don’t always make a profit from the fees, and in some cases they are a necessity, said Maura Campbell, public relations director for Consumer and Industry Services.

“We don’t profit at all from this,” she said. “The revenue goes directly to pay the salaries of the two staffers who control the 900 numbers.”

The department generates about $80,000 annually from the service, Campbell said. This meets the estimated cost of the staff hired to handle the calls, which is about $45,000 each with benefits. Banning the 900 numbers might result in no service for the public, Campbell said.

“That could happen,” she said. “There are no immediate plans to phase out this service.”

The Lottery Bureau would not comment.

Sen. Laura Toy, R-Livonia, who chairs the committee, said the bill is a good idea.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for public information,” she said. “It seems common sense, even though the budget is so tight.”

A Wayne County chiropractor filed a class action lawsuit last year against three state agencies claiming that they violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The chiropractor filed the suit because of charges patients had to pay to find out whether doctors were licensed and in good standing with the state. The case was dismissed in circuit court and is now awaiting action in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The issue is important because it’s a matter of encouraging public interest in their government, said Dawn Phillips-Hertz, an Ann Arbor media lawyer and general counsel to the Michigan Press Association. The association represents daily and weekly newspapers.

“If you want people to vote, you need to get them interested, and the only way to do that is through information,” she said. “If they have to pay for this information, they will be intimidated or just won’t do it.”

Citizens should be interested because the public pays for their government and state employees are public servants, Phillips-Hertz said.

“The taxpayer is paying for this,” she said. “Why should they pay more for something these agencies are already getting paid to do? It’s counterproductive to the goals of democracy.”

Campbell said customers have the alternative of using the department’s free Web site.

“No one has complained before,” she said. “In fact, customers say they appreciate the phone service.”

The department is now looking for a new phone service provider because AT&T discontinued its 900 number service, Campbell said.           

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