Michigan earns ‘F’ for transparency, while legislature helps it stay there

Maybe the idea came to lawmakers in their sleep the night before they voted.

Maybe a glass bottle with the proposal inside washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan and a legislator discovered it.

Or maybe, the bill was found on a droid located somewhere in a Star Wars universe.

Now a month after our lawmakers added 41 pages to a campaign finance bill and within hours voted it through to the governor for his signature, we’re still not 100 percent sure who came up with the bill’s most controversial changes.

The heavily changed bill, signed into law as Public Act 269, provides a series of technical reforms backed by large corporations. It will also allow more money to flow into our political system by stating that contributions that go to pay campaign debt created in past election cycles don’t have to apply to those cycles’ contribution limits.

Considering our current set of officeholders have a combined $7 million in campaign debt and many big-time donors who’ve already given maximum contributions for the cycles where that debt was created, that’s a significant change.

But causing a greater stir, and potentially a lawsuit, is another change added to the bill late in the evening on Dec. 16. It bans local governments from using taxpayer dollars on radio, TV or mailings that provide any information on local ballot proposals 60 days before an election.

Local government officials despise the change, because it seriously inhibits their ability to explain often complicated local ballot proposals.

While local governments are already banned from using taxpayer dollars to explicitly tell people to vote yes or no on a proposal, supporters of the change say that cities and schools are blurring the line between telling people to vote a certain way and providing factual information, as previously permitted.

The new law, the take-your-ball-and-go-home method of fixing this situation, wasn’t publicly vetted and seems to contradict legislators’ past actions.

Similar line-blurring didn’t matter to lawmakers in 2013, when they passed a bill that exempted campaign expenditures that don’t expressly tell you to vote one way or another from disclosure requirements.

And the issue of taxpayer dollars being used to inform voters about ballot proposals hasn’t mattered to lawmakers previously as they’ve repeatedly sent out mailers from their own offices about statewide ballot proposals.

Although the local ballot question change has faced major pushback — even from some of the Republicans who voted for it — no one has come out publicly as the person or group that pushed for the “reform.”

What makes the situation particularly curious is the fact that there hasn’t been a committee hearing on the ballot proposal language or a standalone bill focused on the matter previously introduced this session.

In fact, over the past 10 years, there have been some 17,000 bills introduced in the Legislature, and not one previously focused on the change that lawmakers quickly approved in December.

The popular speculation is that the wealthy West Michigan donors wanted the change. But we can’t know for sure. And that’s a problem.

Our legislature is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And our lobbying laws provide little insight about who is wining and dining lawmakers in favor of what specific policy changes.

But the new law seems to point to a greater flaw within our state’s political system.

It paints a picture that says if you can make high-dollar campaign contributions you can get legislation you want inserted in a bill just before a vote, you can get the Governor to the sign the bill although he admits he has problems with it, and the whole time, no one even has to know you requested the change.

In 2015, Michigan got an F grade — the lowest among all states — in an assessment of transparency and accountability from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

This new law is a reminder why.

But sadly, I doubt many of us would be successful if we dialed up legislative leaders and asked them to throw some transparency initiatives or new lobbying disclosure requirements in a bill on the House or Senate floor and to vote it out as soon as possible.

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Embarrassed Citizen
Sat, 01/23/2016 - 12:06am
It is not just the Legislature and the Governor. The MI Supreme Court in a case decided on December 22, 2014, effectively "repealed" the Open Meetings Act. They overturned 40 years of precedent and ruled that there will be no attorney fees awarded to citizens bringing OMA lawsuits unless a county's circuit judge issues an injunction. Lawyers that practice OMA law all know that "ain't go'in happen." Injunctions are rarely granted and most often were unnecessary to impose upon a unit of government that screwed up - usually the violation was a "technicality" and usually it was done without intent, so no injunction "to obey the law!" was necessary. With the media budgets no longer spending dollars on lawyers, the only ones that would bring these suits anyway were citizens and a few lawyers that could get paid if the violation was clear - and they almost always were clear. Not any more. No pay coming, no lawyer will take the case unless the citizen pays him so that the citizen can enforce open government. You know anybody that wants to do that? Neither do I. Transparency is dead in this state. We are the worst example in the country - even our judges like to keep government secret.
Losing Faith
Sat, 01/23/2016 - 1:02pm
I agree with Embarrassed Citizen. I only add that I don't expect much from Supreme Court Justices that benefit from both the political dark money and the fraudulent label of “independent” to get elected. They insist that they are only about the law and justice; but they appear to be part of the same cabal of politicians who pervert and impede elections for their own purposes.
Sat, 01/23/2016 - 4:06pm
Please explain to me what transparency provides to the individual voter, resident? Does it change how we are governed, has it made our government more effective, has it change how we select candidates, elect officials? What does it change, what are the examples of how it has changed government, how does it change the individual ethics of government officials. My understanding is that we have the 'most transparent' President in history and what has it change in government activities? My understanding is we have a well thought of Presidential candidate that during a time in government service made very purposeful efforts to avoid transparency. With all the claim for transparency it appears that candidate is likely to be the next President so why should we care about transparency, the voters don't? Will you vote for that candidate in spite of the efforts to avoid transparency [rhetorical question, I really don't want to know because I suspect you will and that would undermine any of your credibility]? As far as I can tell, the cell phone a most effective means of people providing transparency.
john yelle
Sun, 01/24/2016 - 5:19pm
Duane, you are right in most all your comments, but still Michigan is the worse in transparency. What does that tell about how we are as a state? Snyder really prefers to have Dick DeVos run our state, and prefers us to not know that whenever possible. I thought we defeated him in his bid for governor. Yet his policies dictate. Money talks.
Sun, 01/24/2016 - 5:45pm
john, I would have higher expectations of DeVos, unless it is impacted by Snyder's understanding and ability to implement. Money doesn't talk it only allows people to let it cloud the discussion. If we were to ignore the idea of money and focus on the desired impact we could create, a clarity of problem, outcome, and a means for program/plan performance accountability, we could do what needs to be done. You might be surprised by all those who in the privacy of the voting booth and even in volunteering to participate. My best guess Snyder was elected because people had reached a level of disappointment with the past that anyone who was unknown would have been elected. What was that Lansing mayor's name, he could only talk about the future by looking in to the review mirror. Who will run and win next election could very easily be someone we have never heard of and allows us to hope or someone we know that forgets how they got here and described a new and different path to the future, one that trusted more to the voters/residents and their knowledge and skills.
Sun, 01/24/2016 - 8:33am
Hey, Mr. Mauger? As executive director of the MCFN, you should know full well that is was Michigan Republican Party lawyer Eric Doster who was the person responsible for that last minute change to SB-571/PA-269 (he even wrote a book on the topic). Why didn't you mention that to Bridge Readers?
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 01/24/2016 - 11:25am
So when we receive glossy mailers from our representatives that taut the great work they are doing for their constituents, who pays for that?
Greg Crowe
Fri, 02/19/2016 - 12:43pm
We do.
Wed, 02/24/2016 - 12:53pm
Transparency. If and when it does happen it seems to appear after the fact. As the song goes" I can see clearly now. " Pure MI. seems to be "Purely Political". I can feel the trickle down, it's working. Peace R.L.