Tracking dark money in Michigan politics just got harder

A new law signed by Gov. Snyder makes it easier to get around how much can be spent on candidates’ campaigns in Michigan, and harder to determine who is behind the money.

Craig Mauger

Craig Mauger is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit that chronicles the role of money in state politics. The views expressed in this column are his own.

I have a 1-year-old son. There was a day recently he rushed into my family’s living room upset and crying.

He can string some words together, like “I want fox” (that’s his favorite stuffed animal), but he’s not quite to the point of being able to explain complex problems. So I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

Eventually, after checking his whole body, I realized that he had stepped on a tiny piece of glass that got caught on the bottom of his foot. I took the small piece of glass out. And he was better.

The lesson, I believe, is the following: To fix a problem, you have to be able to identify what’s behind the problem. In Michigan, we have a problem. People’s trust in their government has plummeted, and people on both sides of the aisle don’t believe their elected officials are listening to them.

There’s probably a whole bunch of reasons for this. Among them is the growing amount of money flowing into our politics and the extreme secrecy that prevents the average Michigander from being able to follow it.

There’s not a single person or decision that’s to blame. It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of people for Michigan to get to the bottom of the rankings of all states for transparency and accountability.

MORE COVERAGE: Michigan residents to Lansing: We don’t trust you to do the basics

But what I can say with certainty is that the problem got worse this week. And what is just as troubling is that the reasons it got worse are hard to explain. They take time to understand and will complicate the public’s ability to ultimately identify the impact.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder put a new law in place on Thursday that will help balloon the growing cost of elections in Michigan and could make the true sources of the money harder to track. The law sets definitive policies in areas of campaign finance that were murky previously.

Supporters of the bill, Senate Bill 335, say it simply codified the U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-year-old decision in the Citizens United case. It actually did more than that.

The court decision said government can’t put limits on independent spending in our elections by corporations and labor unions. The theory was that because the spending was independent of candidates, there was no fear of corruption and thus, there was no reason to restrict the freedom of speech of corporations and labor unions.

Michigan’s new law, however, specifically ensures that candidates will be involved and says they can solicit unlimited contributions to supposedly “independent” Super PACs that will later support them.

Michigan has had limits on giving to candidates’ campaigns since the 1970s. Then-Gov. William Milliken championed the limits in an ethics reform package as a response to Watergate.

The limits on giving to candidates’ campaigns still exist. But the new law makes it easier to get around the limits. A donor could give $6,800 to a candidate for governor, which is the maximum amount an individual can give for that office, and then the same candidate could ask the same donor to give $680,000 to a Super PAC controlled by one of the candidate’s friends.

There’s another detail to understand about Super PACs. They can take money from corporations, which means a nonprofit organization that raises money from anonymous donors can contribute to them. Companies whose ownership is difficult or perhaps impossible for the public to trace can also give to them.

Permitting unlimited fundraising and hard-to-track contributions will not advance the cause of a representative government. They will advance the causes of consultants who want to work for both Super PACs and candidates and of those who can give the largest contributions and want to give them directly to candidates.

Lawmakers could have placed limits on candidates’ involvement in fundraising for Super PACs. There’s a limit on the federal level. They could have added extra transparency measures and reporting requirements for Super PAC donors. They chose not to.

A lot of people involved in politics from both sides of the aisle are dismayed by this new law. I’ve been asked repeatedly by people this week, “How do we get the public to care about this?”

I think people care. I think people are also jaded by the large number of similar bills that have made it through the Legislature in the last years. The impact of this new law also doesn’t fit easily in an eight-word headline or a 140-character Tweet.

It’s complicated. And it can be frustrating.

But I encourage you to keep trying to figure out what’s happening in Lansing. Keep pushing to determine who’s trying to influence your representative and what they want.

In Michigan, it’s work that’s becoming harder. But it’s also becoming more important.

(Bridge asked bill sponsor Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, through email, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, through his chief of staff, if they would be interested in writing a guest column advocating for the bill. Neither responded to our request.)

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron FrenchClick here for details and submission guidelines.

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John Darling
Tue, 09/26/2017 - 9:15am

I agree with the author. This bill pushes in exactly the wrong direction. We should be pushing for COMPLETE disclosure of every cent spent advocating on either side. Funds who can't be tracked to a specific voter ought not be allowed. Dark money is a prime contributor to the dysfunction in our government.

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 3:38pm

I agree that we should know where money for candidates is coming from.

Henry Saur
Tue, 09/26/2017 - 9:51am

If you have a legitimate position and want to contribute to a real conversation you shouldn't have to hide who you are. This legislation removes all transparency from political contributions and shows the real color of Snyder and the current GOP legislature. This is not democracy but another attempt to retain power at the cost of the real needs of the state not just the well to do minority.

Tom House
Tue, 09/26/2017 - 7:27pm

When bills like this that make it difficult, if not impossible, to "show me the money" are added to the partisan way we have drawn our Congressional districts, it diminishes the role of the voters in our democracy.

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 8:25pm

If any of these guys looked at what has happened at the Federal level and the enormous amounts of money flowing into politics, they would use some common sense.

There are serious problems in MI and this is what they are doing? Give me a break. Let's talk about infrastructure, Flint water, transparency/accountability, bankruptcy of Detroit, to name a few. Michigan's ranking among other states is at the bottom in all aspects of quality of life.

You look at the amount of money that has been spent on "outside attorney's" that our infamous AG has hired to "indict MI government staff", not to mention the millions spent on attorneys for the Governor and then said AG is running for governor.

These guys really don't get it. If all of this does not make citizens of MI pay attention, what will?

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:43am

Why care about the money? Why not care about the quality of candidates?

If we invested as much effort is spent on writing about campaign money on helping voters to have the tools for better evaluating candidates, and making it easier for people to serve in elected office, the impact of campaign money would be mute with quality winning out over spending.

Margaret Shamel
Wed, 09/27/2017 - 1:30am

Well, go figure. Our shady Michigan government passed a bill to make it even shadier. Are we surprised. No. But I am ABSOLUTELY not going to vote for ANY incumbent in any of the elections in the next few years. I am totally disgusted with our government. Federal and State. Our "representatives" have no idea what it is like to be a regular, work a day, struggle to make it from one pay day to the next. They are so far from us in ideology that they couldn't represent our dreams if they were nightmares. I have lost all my respect for our government. They cheat, steal, and stab us in the back. They pass laws and bills tacked on to other bills and blind side the constituents . Our founding fathers would be ashamed.

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 5:03pm

Please don’t vote against an encumbant but vote against his or her record. That takes more involvement and will keep those who are doing their job right where we want them to be. Pick 3 pr 4 issues that matter to you and find out how your representative voted. Use a search engine or call the public library to do the research for you. There are good representatives and they need to be recognized.

David W.
Wed, 09/27/2017 - 9:03am

This is once again an example of a legislature doing only what is good for them. This law was put into play by a governor and legislature that knows full well the impact. They enacted it to benefit their ability to control elections through a free flow of money. This is a prime example of the results of gerrymandering.

How do you get people to care? I am afraid the average Michigan voter may well be beyond the point of caring. They know that our government is non representative, serving only itself.

Does anyone actually believe that Michigan state government represents the will of the citizens of Michigan?

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 7:55pm

Why whine about the symptom and ignore the problem. Until we address the problem and only focus on the symptom nothing will change only new ways to spend money will be developed.

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 9:57am

I find it sad that a topic of such wide ranging effect only garners 9 comments.
It seems that we are not expressing our distaste to our elected officials, ergo, we must be happy with it. Or maybe that is why so many people are looking to redistricting for relief?

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 11:52am

The article not new, it is a long series of diatribes about money with no interest in the solving the problem that encourage the spending. When you hear the same message time and again for years and nothing changes one realizes that the writer(s) become so enamored with their own words they have lost interest in addressing why the topic is always present.

I have only ever heard complaints about campaign money, never questioning why the money is being spent when time and again it is shown not to assure results. Whether in the last Michigan public vote on taxes for roads, or for candidates [such as Majority Leader Cantor of the House of Rep losing in a GOP primary in 2014] the campaign spending was on the opposite side of the voting, Mr. Power and others seem to be uninterested so articles become repetitious.

John Chamberlin
Sat, 02/03/2018 - 9:54pm

Excellent column, Craig. You can help to root out the sources of dark money and the people behind the bucks by supporting the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (on whose board I serve). The more light we can shine into the dark corners the better our chances are of stopping stuff like Senate Bill 335 next time around. Once again, the Governor who campaigned on bringing ethics back to public life knuckled under to Meekhof and his colleagues.

Lucille Nawara
Mon, 02/05/2018 - 12:07pm

Only a consummately corrupt politician could sign this bill, in effect greatly diminishing the voters choices in favor of those of giant corporations and billionaires. Republicsn Governor William Milliken did our state a big favor by blocking a similar bill. Share this article with your friends and neighbors.