Michigan lags on ethics, lobbying, campaign rules

If Michigan lawmakers are serious about cluing the public in on the money being spent to win elections and influence policy-makers, there are plenty of places to look for guidance.

Fifty states have crafted 50 systems, which vary substantially. Oregon, for example, is exceptionally strong in making sure that all campaign donations and spending are reported, but unlike most states, it has no limits on what donors can give or candidates and committees can spend.

Wisconsin has both contribution limits and a well-developed reporting system. But, like Michigan, its laws have failed to address the 800-foot-wide loophole that allows millions of dollars to be secretly raised and spent.

"In general, each state has its strengths and weaknesses," said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

In recent years, some states, such as Illinois and Louisiana, have finally confronted cultures of corruption and unaccountability to revamp campaign finance laws. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called a special session of the Legislature shortly after taking office to push through reforms modeled after standards laid out by the Center for Public Integrity.

The state is now leveraging ethics reforms as an economic development tool.

While no state has found the perfect system, Michigan can pick and choose from the practices that are working elsewhere, said Jocelyn Benson, an associate professor of law at Wayne State University and author of the book, "State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process." "There are many, many ways in which we have a long way to go," said Benson, who ran as the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2010.

If lawmakers don't move forward on their own, she said, the voters themselves may take action through a petition drive. Citizen initiatives have frequently led to reforms in other states, she noted.

Here is a look at what some states are doing to address some of the key weaknesses in Michigan:

Issue ads

In Michigan, millions of dollars in spending on television and radio advertising go unreported by the Department of State each election cycle. They escape disclosure laws because they are considered "issue advocacy," since they don't explicitly ask voters to cast ballots for or against a candidate or ballot proposal.  Never mind that the candidates' own ads often don't have these so-called "magic words," either.

"Any state that does not require the reporting of money spent on these electioneering communications (issue advocacy ads) is missing the boat big-time," said Roth Barber of the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

North Carolina doesn't have that problem. It began regulating issue-advocacy ads identifying candidates after a group called Farmers for Fairness ran ads attacking legislators in the 1998 primary election without disclosure. "It was a mystery group for a long time," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a group whose mission includes reducing the impact of big money on politics.

The law has changed over the years in response to court decisions and legislative action.  As it stands now, groups that run ads mentioning the name of a candidate within 60 days of the beginning of absentee voting (110 days before the general election) are subject to campaign finance laws and must disclose their donors and expenditures.

"It hasn't been challenged. It has been complied with," Hall said. "Groups that do advertising, whether they want to call it issue advertising or express advertising or whatever, they feel that they are being watched and that they need to file paper. They have disclosed their contributions." North Carolina's searchable database includes a category for electioneering communications.

North Carolina is by no means alone in refusing to let the lack of so-called "magic words" such as "elect" or "defeat" be used as a loophole to keep the public in the dark. In various forms, 21 states have laws regulating issue-advocacy ads when they mention candidates by name within a specified number of days of an election, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In addition, Oregon uses an expansive definition of independent expenditures that includes issue-advocacy ads, thereby falling under its disclosure laws.

Financial disclosure

Michigan is one of just three states that don't require top elected officials (let alone local or unelected officials) to provide any public information about their financial holdings. Financial disclosure laws are designed to enable the public to identify potential conflicts of interest.

Wisconsin financial disclosure law covers the governor, legislators and judges and hundreds of local officials. But there are barriers to getting the information. It is not posted on the state website, and requests cannot be made anonymously or on behalf of another person. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group, and a couple of newspapers periodically collect the financial disclosure reports for the governor and state legislators and post it on their websites. Here are the filings compiled by the Wisconsin State Journal.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal sought to create a clean government culture to help attract business. He convened a special session of the Legislature upon taking office in 2008, and it passed a wide range of campaign finance measures, including comprehensive financial disclosure laws. Videos on the Web help officials fill out the forms electronically. The completed forms are available on the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program website.

The forms include information such as employment and business information, income from governmental agencies or gaming interests, property, investment holdings, and financial transactions. Here is Jindal's own 2011 financial disclosure statement.

Jindal said the effort to transform the ethics laws was designed "to encourage increased business benefit and job creation so our children do not have to leave home to pursue their dreams."


In contrast to Michigan's mostly useless lobby law that tells the public almost nothing about the efforts by special interests to influence policy, Wisconsin lets the light shine.

 Lobbyists are required to not just register with the state, but to identify the bills and issues they are lobbying on -- and what percentage of their time is spent on each.

For instance, Harley-Davidson Motor Company reports lobbying on two specific bills and developing a third proposal in the 2011-12 session. The state website provides straightforward links to other organizations lobbying on the same measures, as well as texts and analyses of the legislation under discussion.

"When it comes to efforts to actually influence legislation or agency rule-making, the law is reasonably strong; compliance with the law is solid; and the information that is presented online is valuable," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group. "In that sense, our law is not bad, either the spirit of the law or the actual practice of following the law."

Wisconsin -- also in stark contrast to Michigan -- bans lobbyists from paying for meals, transportation or lodging of lobbyable officials.

Campaign-finance reporting

Michigan residents had to wait more than a year between elected officials' campaign finance reports to see who had contributed what to candidates during the period that lawmakers were debating a second bridge between Detroit and Windsor,Ontario, and other important public policy matters.

That doesn't happen in Oregon, which has adopted a practice of transaction-based reporting of campaign finance activities. It gives the public much faster information about campaign contributions and spending.

Instead of requiring regularly scheduled reports, contributions and expenditures must be reported within 30 days of the transaction. Six weeks before the election, committees must report transactions within seven days of their occurrence.

Janice Thompson, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said the downside is the lack of a single report creates a lack of clarity for media that report on campaign financing. But she said veteran reporters are analyzing the spending during the election to keep the public informed.

Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester Times-Union.

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