Last week was National Sunshine Week, designed to increase transparency in government: Opening up the workings of government and politics to the healthy light of day makes things cleaner and better.
Sure. Over the years, I've watched plenty of National Sunshine Weeks come and go, without much actually changing. So I'm more than moderately skeptical about two proposals to improve campaign donation reporting that surfaced last week.
One, a package of 18 bills, from Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, would, among other things, ban elected officials from lobbying for two years after leaving office, require a candidate who switches parties to pay back any contributions collected before the switch and prohibit foreign-controlled corporations from making "independent" expenditures in campaigns.
Response was tit for tat. In introducing the package, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said citizens deserve to know what's going on, who's doing what and who's paying for it. Ari Adler, spokesman for House Republicans, said the legislation does not provide true reform because labor unions would be largely exempt from the proposed reforms.
At the same time, Ruth Johnson, the Republican secretary of state, announced she wants to require political campaigns to report contributions within 48 hours of having received them. Under current law, state campaigns and committees for or against ballot issues only have to report contributions in January and again before and after the primary and general elections. As a result, tons of money gets slipped into the political process before anybody knows anything about it.
Johnson would have any ballot issue contribution more than $1,000 reported within two days of receipt and allow complete online access in three. She also proposed the same requirement for candidates for state offices, as well as mayors, township trustees and other city officials.
"I understand how things can be done to withhold information from the public that really deserves to know," Johnson said.
Johnson's suggestion was cautiously greeted. Bob McCann, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, said, "Certainly there is support on our side of the aisle" for ways to improve transparency in elections.
There's a lot to do. Michigan campaign reporting rules are riddled with loopholes.
In a report issued last year, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network concluded that loopholes in Michigan campaign reporting rules resulted in $70 million (!) in political contributions in 2010 were "hidden in plain view.” For example, according to MCFN Executive Director Rich Robinson, something less than half of the $11 million spent in 2010 by campaigns for the Michigan Supreme Court was ever publicly reported.
All these shenanigans have had an impact on public attitudes toward politicians, ballot proposals and campaign contributions. For example, a poll conducted in March 2011 for Inside Michigan Politics by Marketing Resources Group found that 81 percent of Michigan voters favored full disclosure of all electioneering spending, versus 12 percent opposed. Other polls reach similar conclusions.
Fixing all this requires simple, if radical, changes.
Robinson basically urges amending the Michigan Campaign Finance Act to include "electioneering communications", i.e. TV, cable, internet or telephonic communication that includes the name or image of a candidate for state or local office within 60 days of an election involving that candidate. Any committee or corporation that sponsors electioneering communications must disclose the donors whose funds the sponsor is using to pay for its communications.
There are lots of political and special interest reasons why such a proposal will be summarily dumped. Those interests do not include those of ordinary Michigan citizens, who for years have been bamboozled by political ads paid for by hidden sources.
But we can always hope.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.