Michigan lawmakers propose financial disclosures. Some fear they fall short
- Bill package would make Michigan the 49th state to require public financial disclosures from lawmakers and statewide elected officials
- Transparency experts say the plan falls short of requirements in Congress, other states
- Lawmakers must pass financial disclosure rules before the end of the year
Bills introduced in the state Senate Tuesday would make Michigan the second-to-last state to require public financial disclosures from most elected officials and candidates, but would allow filers to leave out specifics that transparency experts say are crucial to identifying possible conflicts of interest.
Senate Bills 613 through 616 are the Democratic-majority Legislature’s answer to Proposal 1, an initiative approved by voters last year that requires lawmakers and statewide officials, including the governor, to annually disclose their income sources and a description of their assets.
Lawmakers have until the end of the year to pass disclosure regulations to avoid exposing the state to lawsuits. The Senate Oversight Committee is scheduled to discuss the plan during a Wednesday morning hearing.
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The bills mark a “huge step forward” for government transparency and holding elected officials accountable, Senate Elections and Ethics Chair Jeremy Moss, a Southfield Democrat and a lead sponsor on the package, said in a statement.
“This is a full-circle moment to achieve the goals we set out years ago to enact Michigan’s first-ever financial disclosure law that would reveal conflicts of interests from lawmakers,” Moss said. “Our Prop. 1 legislation is not an end but a long-overdue beginning to finally implementing transparency laws.”
The bills are co-sponsored by leaders from both political parties including Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, and Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton.
As introduced, the legislation requires officials to disclose all income sources that exceed $1,000, as well as assets, stocks, bonds, unearned income and liabilities exceeding $10,000.
That’s fairly standard among the 48 other states that already have financial disclosure laws, said Nicholas Pigeon, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit watchdog group tracking money in politics. Idaho is the only other state that doesn’t require officials to disclose their finances.
But the legislation as written doesn’t require specificity beyond that, unlike Congress and many other states, which require officials to report a value range on assets and income sources. Some states, like Alaska, require exact value amounts.
Advocates for government transparency have argued that it’s important for the public to know whether a lawmaker voting, for example, on a proposal to provide business incentives to a particular company holds a $1,000 in stock in that company or $10,000.
"If there isn't an itemized disclosure, or at least a categorical disclosure of the source of earning long term income, this would be a very weak law, compared to the rest of the country," Pigeon said.
Also notable in the new legislation is its approach to gift disclosures.
The ballot initiative that passed only requires lawmakers to report gifts from lobbyists or their agents — something they’re already required to disclose.
Advocates had hoped the legislation might go further and require the disclosure of gifts from other sources — such as the secret junkets taken by former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican who is now under criminal investigation for alleged financial impropriety and sexual assault.
Pigeon called it "disappointing" that lawmakers did not move to force disclosure of travel paid for by nonprofit accounts like the kind Chatfield used.
"That's where we see a lot of the sausage-making in politics, where they're rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers in the national scene," Pigeon said. And under the new legislation, "they still don't have to disclose it."
Moss said ongoing state government corruption scandals “must compel us to further strengthen Michigan’s ethics laws.” He promised more transparency initiatives are coming to “shine a light on policymaking in Lansing.”
The proposal does go further than Proposal 1 in some ways, such as requiring officials to disclose information about the income and assets of their spouses. But it includes an exemption that allows officials to omit from disclosure items "exclusive" to the spouse that they do not "expect to" financially benefit them personally.
Knowing violators of the financial disclosure policy would be subject to a $1,000 civil fine. A late filing fee of $25 per day up to $500 would start accruing if a public official or candidate’s report is more than 10 days late.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat whose office will be tasked with collecting and publishing the disclosure reports, has spent months urging legislators to build strong enforcement penalties into the law.
The ballot proposal itself did not specify how or if officials should be penalized if they lie on a financial disclosure report or fail to file one. The amendment says only that they “must” file by April 15, 2024, and every year thereafter.
If there are violations, there needs to be “clarity to how we can hold folks accountable,” Benson told Bridge this summer.
Benson has cited federal rules as a model, but experts say members of Congress often skip periodic transaction reports because the penalty is so minimal: A $200 fine once lawmakers miss the filing deadline by 30 days.
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