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Michigan Democrats eye new ethics disclosures, crackdown on gifts

people at the podium
House Democrats unveiled a bill package Wednesday that would, among other things, expand disclosure requirements by nonprofits tied to policymakers. (Bridge photo by Jordyn Hermani)
  • House Democrats seek more disclosure rules around nonprofits tied to lawmakers, gifts to public officials 
  • Similar efforts have failed to gain traction in past legislative sessions
  • If enacted, government transparency advocates say bills would be a ‘powerful tool’ in exposing dark money

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers are once again making vows to revisit the state’s lax ethics laws, rolling out a wish list of proposals that would give the public more clarity on who’s influencing the political process. 

Many of the suggestions rolled out by House Democrats Wednesday — including additional disclosures from nonprofits affiliated with lawmakers and candidates, a temporary ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists and stricter rules about gifts and event tickets given to public officials — have seen bipartisan support from government transparency advocates in years past. 


But none so far have gained serious traction in a Legislature that’s historically been resistant to improving Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation ethics laws. Rep. Erin Byrnes, a Dearborn Democrat and chair of the House Ethics and Oversight Committee, hopes that will change. 


“We have all seen multiple examples of bad actors in and around the legislature over the years, but it's a new day in Lansing,” Byrnes said during a Wednesday press conference. “We are ready to take bold steps to address the wrongs of the past and to establish a clear path forward that's paved with greater transparency and accountability.”

A key tenet of the House plan would require nonprofits affiliated with elected officials and candidate committees to register with the Secretary of State starting in January 2026. 

501(c)(4) nonprofits — which must file reports with the Internal Revenue Service but can accept unlimited contributions from corporations without publicly disclosing donors — are not subject to the same disclosure rules or donation limits as candidate bank accounts. Some lawmakers have exploited the loophole to shield information about travel, expenses and donors from the public eye. 

Despite frequent examples of public officials using the nonprofits inappropriately, “it's almost impossible to hold bad actors accountable when our state law doesn't even give the (Attorney General) or the Secretary of State a starting point,” Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, said Wednesday.

If enacted, the plan could be “very powerful in helping expose a lot of dark money here in the state,” said Nick Pigeon, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Other proposals in the latest House transparency package, including expanding rules around gifts to lawmakers and extending those rules to legislative staff, are reminiscent of what was left on the cutting-room floor during debates over legislation requiring public officials to disclose income sources and possible conflicts of interest. 

Some lawmakers had hoped to require disclosure of gifts beyond those received from registered lobbyists, arguing that lobbyists are already required to report gifts and that influential non-lobbyists could use gifts or travel perks to sway lawmakers. 

A bill from Rep. Betsy Coffia, D-Traverse City, introduced Wednesday would require officials to disclose a list of gifted tickets to any concerts, sporting events or other entertainment, as well as any travel paid for by another person. 


Another bill would enact a one-year ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists after leaving the Legislature. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leadership in both chambers will have the final say in whether the latest proposals gain traction. Byrnes told reporters Wednesday that she’s had “positive conversations” with Whitmer’s administration and House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit. 

The House plan’s rollout coincides with Sunshine Week, a national campaign that calls attention to gaps in government transparency laws. 

Separately, lawmakers on the Senate Oversight Committee voted Wednesday to move bills subjecting state legislators and the governor to the Freedom of Information Act, a concept long supported by members of both parties that has stalled several sessions in a row. Sen. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said that legislation could be advanced as early as next week.

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