Why It's So Hard To Follow The Money In Michigan's Political System

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 of the reasons why it's difficult to follow the money in Michigan politics.

 

1) Groups that pay for candidate-focused “issue advertisements" don't have to disclose their donors.

Candidate-focused “issue advertising" sometimes exceeds the campaign spending of the candidates themselves, as it did in the 2008 Supreme Court campaign. 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 must be corrected before it completely destroys 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.

 

2) Officeholders and top administration officials don't have to file disclsoures about their personal finances.

Members of Congress and officeholders in 47 states file annual reports disclosing their personal finances. Michigan is one of the last three states with no personal financial disclosure for public officials. 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.

 

3) All lobbying expenditures aren't reported from the first dollar expended.

When lobbyists spend money that directly benefits a public official, there are reporting thresholds. Meals and gifts don’t have to be reported unless they exceed $58 for a lobbyable official in a month. Travel and lodging provided to a public official doesn’t have to be reported unless it exceeds $775.

And while "gifts" are banned under state lobbying laws, a gift is defined as anything with a value that exceeds $58.

The current thresholds make it difficult, and in many cases impossible, for constituents to track who's buying meals and "gifts" for their representatives.

 

4) Multi-client lobbying firms don't report their expenditures allocated by the clients they represent.

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.