Gov. Whitmer touts transparency, backs disclosure plan blasted for loopholes
- Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opposes tougher financial disclosure rules that would require candidates or officials to disclose spousal income and assets
- Fellow Democrats says plan Whitmer favors has a loophole large enough to ‘drive the Titanic through’
- Governor also says she won’t voluntarily open her office to public records requests until the Legislature does so
LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday backed what critics are calling a weak personal financial disclosure plan and said she won’t adhere to a campaign promise to unilaterally open her office to public records requests.
Speaking with reporters after a Michigan Press Association lunch, the second-term Democrat said she would sign recently introduced personal financial disclosure legislation despite what critics say are glaring loopholes.
Fellow Democrats like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, state Rep. Phil Skaggs and former state Rep. Dave LaGrand are urging the Senate to expand its proposed disclosure package by requiring candidates and elected officials to also disclose the income and assets of their spouses.
- Critics call Michigan financial disclosure proposal a weak ‘con job’
- Michigan Democrats vowed transparency reforms. Now, they say maybe next year
Doing so would ensure candidates for political office cannot transfer assets to a spouse in order to hide potential conflicts of interest, LaGrand said this week, arguing that the current language is a “con job” that creates “a hole” large enough to “drive the Titanic through.”
Michigan has a dubious distinction as one of the least transparent states in the nation, earning failing grades on government integrity and ethics laws.
Speaking to the press group, Whitmer said that "transparency must extend to every entity that serves the people" and told media professionals she is excited to work with the Legislature to strengthen laws.
But speaking with reporters after the event, the governor she favors the limited spousal disclosure proposed in the Senate bills, which would only require elected officials and candidates to report the name and occupation of their spouse — not the spouse’s actual income, employer or separately held assets.
“There is a legitimate concern that that kind of information will be held against female candidates for positions in a way that it won't be held against male candidates for positions,” Whitmer told reporters.
“And I think that that's something that raises some red flags for me. But if it is a matter of their name and their occupation, (as proposed by the Senate), you can Google and find that. So I don't have a problem with that.”
That appears to be a new position for Whitmer, who as a state Senator in 2006 co-sponsored personal financial disclosure legislation that would have required spousal income reporting.
Whitmer also told reporters that she has no plans to voluntarily open her office to Freedom of Information Act requests, despite a 2018 campaign vow to do so.
Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states that exempt the governor and Legislature from the law that allows the citizens to obtain public records.
Democrats who lead the Legislature had promised to change the law this year, but now acknowledge they are punting any action on that front until at least next year.
“We need to make sure that the Legislature is also transparent, and I know that if I do It unilaterally, they will lose any motivation to do anything,” Whitmer told reporters Thursday when asked why she had not fulfilled her campaign pledge.
“And so it is a part of leveraging to get it done right, not just done unilaterally and can be undone by the next governor.”
Her comments come as the Legislature is racing to finalize personal financial disclosure rules by the end of this year, which is required under a constitutional amendment approved last fall by 66 percent of voters.
In recent weeks, conflict-of-interest questions have surrounded House Appropriations Chair Angela Witwer, who founded a consulting company that does business with the state. A former House speaker, Rick Johnson, was also recently sentenced to prison after he was convicted of accepting medical marijuana licensing board bribes in a scheme that involved consulting payments to his wife.
Prior to passage of last year’s constitutional amendment, Proposal 1, Michigan had been one of only two states without any rules requiring public officials to publicly disclose income sources or assets.
Supporters call the Senate package an important first step for transparency under majority Democrats, who this year took full control of state government for the first time in four decades.
But one of the state’s top Democrats, Benson, argued on Wednesday that the minimal spousal provision in the Senate disclosure legislation “creates too many loopholes” and would render the law “relatively ineffective.” She also raised concerns about proposed gift disclosure rules but offered general support for the legislative effort.
“If you're going to include spouses… then you should do so in a meaningful way or not at all,” Benson told lawmakers.
State Rep. Phil Skaggs, Ethics and Oversight Committee Chair Erin Byrnes and 20 other House Democrats introduced their own personal financial disclosure bills on Wednesday afternoon that propose more robust reporting requirements for spouses, along with any dependents.
Because Michigan is a “joint marital assets state,” a candidate or elected official could transfer assets to a spouse without much risk of losing an equal share in the event the couple later decides to divorce, said Skaggs, D-East Grand Rapids.
That means the Senate bills would allow “a very easy way to hide assets and conflicts from voters,” Skaggs told Bridge Michigan, noting most states with financial disclosure rules require the same level of disclosure for spouses.
“If we’re going to have financial disclosure, which voters are going to believe as genuine, then we have to make sure that there are not places where candidates and elected officials can easily hide their money,” he said.
While Skaggs and other colleagues are hopeful that elements of their proposal reach the governor’s desk, Democratic House Speaker Joe Tate of Detroit made clear this week that he intends to consider only the Senate version if it is passed by the upper chamber.
Whitmer would not say whether she would sign the legislation if lawmakers decide to toughen the spousal disclosure provisions.
“I'm not going to make any veto threats right now,” the governor said Thursday. “I'm going to continue talking with the Legislature, but I think I've been pretty clear about what I think is important.”
She told reporters, however, that she believes Michigan is “on the cusp of making a great step forward when it comes to increased transparency” because Democrats are in charge.
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