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Michigan lawmakers: Ethics reform will build public trust. Critics: Not likely

Michigan capitol
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and officials with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer say they anticipate agreement on a budget in the next few weeks. (Shutterstock photo)

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers could not immediately become paid lobbyists after leaving office and would be required to disclose personal financial information to a private board under legislation approved Wednesday by the Michigan House.

The bipartisan plan, backed by Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Democratic Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, aims to improve Michigan's failing grade on ethics and transparency laws, which have ranked among the worst in the nation.

But the cornerstone of the package, legislation intended to curb conflicts of interest, has drawn criticism because it would require lawmakers and state department directors to disclose personal finances to a “secret” panel instead of the public.

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Michigan is one of two states that does not require lawmakers to publicly disclose at least some financial data, “and that would not change under this package,” said Rep. Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township.

“It is the public's right to know what financial conflicts those they are electing might have,” he said. “It is therefore so disappointing to me that this package fails to do that, and rather moves Michigan towards more darkness and obscurity.”

Supporters, however, contend the legislation will make significant improvements to Michigan ethics laws, which currently require no financial disclosure by lawmakers or other officials,  and begin to restore waning public trust in government.

“The public's confidence in their elected officials is at an all time low,” and “it does not help that the ethical standards for the state of Michigan's officials are disgracefully low,” said Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township.

“The time for real change is long overdue.”

Ethics committee

The proposed “committee to enforce ethics” would include members appointed by majority and minority leaders in both chambers. It would have authority to investigate ethical complaints lodged against lawmakers.

The public could only learn of a current lawmaker’s financial holdings if the committee determines a member has violated ethical conflict-of-interest standards by voting on legislation that benefits them. Records would also be available upon request after a lawmaker left office. 

“These bills can help us to show the people that we can and do govern ethically, and that we can correct our own members when they fail to meet that standard, said Rep, Andrew Fink, R-Adams Township.

The disclosure rules “will encourage all of us to consider our own potential conflicts of interest, and give the ethics committee the opportunity to assist a member with evaluating potential conflicts,” he said.

Supporters hope the “compromise” disclosure plan, approved by the House in a 72-37 vote, has a chance of becoming law as it advances to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has blocked more aggressive public disclosure bills.

Shirkey appears to be willing to consider the new plan, describing it as something he could “live with,” unlike past bills he thought the media would use to give lawmakers “a hard time.”

Asked if Shirkey supports the bills, his office referred to a previous statement: He is “supportive of the idea that government should be accountable to citizens,” said spokesperson Abby Walls. “We look forward to working through the legislative process.”

State Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat who has pushed for tougher financial disclosure rules, has criticized colleagues for instead pursuing a weaker proposal, calling it a “trust us” bill that will do little to repair the public trust. 

“The majority of our constituents think that we come to work every morning to self-enrich, and that is a terrible reality,” he told colleagues. “There is a simple, but a single, solution to that problem, and that is to disclose our finances to the public.”

Lobbying laws

Other bills advanced Wednesday would make significant changes to state lobbying laws. 

The package aims to close the so-called “revolving door” by prohibiting lawmakers and department directors from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office, as many have done in recent years. 

Instead, they’d have to wait two years, a “cooling off period” mandated in several other states as a way to ensure lawmakers aren’t promising their votes for future jobs. 

“The temptation for our time in the Legislature to be influenced by the lure of a high paying lobbying job immediately afterwards runs counter to the important work we're tasked with,” said Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia. The legislation will ensure “that our work reflects what is best for people, not for our own careers.”

Another House-approved bill would also bar the governor, Legislature, or any other state official from appointing a lobbyist to a state board, “unless the appointing authority determines that the appointment would not result in a conflict of interest.”

One bill would prohibit lawmakers from working as lobbyists in other states while still holding office in Michigan. 

That rare scenario that occured last year, when then-state Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, worked for a National Popular Vote organization. 

And, in a proposal that would require approval by voters in the next statewide election, the bipartisan House plan would amend the Michigan constitution to allow the Legislature to suspend pay of a lawmaker who acted "unethically" or was excessively absent.

In 2018, then-state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott, D-Detroit, skipped months of session after losing a primary election. House leaders said it would take months to expel her, so the state continued paying her $71,685 salary, along with mileage and expenses she claimed for prior work.

All told, the legislation addresses “some of the biggest concerns” constituents have raised about Michigan ethics laws, the House speaker, Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a statement. 

“The simple truth is people are losing faith in their government, and the problem gets a little worse every day,” he said. “We need to listen to what the people are telling us and start fixing the broken culture in the halls of government.”

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