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Modest Proposals: Reforms That Would Combat The Secrecy And Imbalance Of 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 five reforms that would help foster an "ethical culture" and would improve both accountability and transparency within our state government:

 

1) The donors to political committees and nonprofit corporations that pay for candidate-focused “issue advertisements" should be disclosed in time for voters to properly consider the campaign advertisements.

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.

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 Republican 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) All state political committees – candidate committees, PACs and party committees – should file campaign finance reports at least once per quarter.

Campaign finance reporting in Michigan occurs too infrequently. Candidates file reports shortly before and after elections, but they file only one annual report in years when they don’t stand for election. PACs file just three reports each year, and every year there is one six-month gap between reports. Federal political committees are required to report at least quarterly, and that is an appropriate reporting standard for state committees.

Officeholders hold hundreds of fundraisers and raise millions of dollars every year, whether there is an election, or not. Citizens should not have to wait a year to learn who has given what to whom. We should have a right to make a timely evaluation whether this state’s policy agenda is driven by the public interest or campaign contributions. 

 

3) Officeholders and top administration officials should file an annual summary of 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 not some idle intrusion. It is the 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.

 

4) All lobbying expenditures should be 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.

When it comes to food and entertainment, public officials should do what their constituents do: manage their salaries and pay their own way. When it comes to travel that is ostensibly related to public business, reporting should begin at dollar one. There shouldn’t be any officeholders’ rights to secret perquisites.

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

 

5) Multi-client lobbying firms should 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. It should be mandatory for multi-client lobbyists’ to report how much they are spending to represent each of their clients.

Even better would be to require lobbyists to name the bill, budget or regulation they are trying to influence on behalf of their client.