In 2015, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan the worst grade of any state for accountability and transparency within its state government. The idea that Michigan struggles with these important metrics is not a new one. When Gov. Rick Snyder was first running for office in 2010, he issued a white paper calling for wide-ranging ethics reforms.
"The best way to improve the credibility of Michigan's government is to reinvent it with an ardent commitment to fostering an ethical culture of honest, accountable and transparent leadership in Lansing," Snyder wrote as a candidate in 2010.
Below are some examples of why it's difficult to follow the money in Michigan politics.
Candidate-focused “issue advertising" sometimes exceeds the campaign spending of the candidates' campaigns themselves. These "issue advertisements" make positive or negative statements about candidates before an election but don't expressly tell viewers to support or oppose the candidates. Because words of express advocacy aren't included in the advertisements, the ads fall outside of Michigan's campaign finance disclosure requirements.
That means the donors behind these messages can remain anonymous. Michigan has seen "issue advertisements" funded by anonymous donors in all types of races from races for precinct delegate to races for governor. In races for the Michigan Supreme Court, the state's highest court, more than half of the spending often comes in the form of "issue advertisements" aired on TV.
Citizens recognize that such ads are an overt attempt to influence the election of candidates while hiding the fingerprints of state campaigns’ biggest spenders. This practice damages the integrity of our electoral process. You can see a summary of previous issue advertising in Michigan by clicking here.
In 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson attemped to change administrative rules to bring disclosure to "issue ads" appearing 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. Her efforts were immediately blocked by lawmakers who sent a bill aimed at keeping "issue ad" donors secret to Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder, who previously said the donors of such ads should be disclosed, signed the bill.
Members of Congress and officeholders in 48 states file annual reports disclosing their personal finances. Michigan is one of two states with no personal financial disclosure for public officials. While the requirements are different from state to state, these disclosures usually provide information on an elected officeholder's outside employment and major investments.
Personal financial disclosure is a way by which citizens can evaluate whether public officials are using their office to benefit themselves financially, or otherwise acting in an unethical way.
You can view the congressional disclosure system by following this link.
When lobbyists spend money that directly benefits a public official, there are reporting thresholds. The recipient of meals and gifts purchased by lobbyists don’t have to be reported unless the lobbyist spends $60 on a lobbyable official in a month or $375 in a year. Travel and lodging provided to a public official by a lobbyist doesn’t have to be reported unless it exceeds $800.
And while "gifts" are banned under state lobbying laws, a gift is defined as anything with a value that exceeds $60 during a one-month period.
As long as lobbyists' keep their purchases for individual officials under the thresholds, they don't have to name the official in their public reports. The current thresholds make it difficult, and in many cases impossible, for constituents to track who's buying meals and gifts for their representatives.
Multi-client lobbyists are required to report their spending and name their clients, but they are not required to report how much they spend in representing each client. Lobbyists also don't have to disclose the bill, budget or regulation they are trying to influence on behalf of their clients.
Trying to figure out how much money is being spent to lobby a particular bill or rule change is impossible.