Will Michigan voters ever get the campaign finance reform they deserve?

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.

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Tue, 03/19/2013 - 3:50pm
There seems to be a vocal few, relative to the total voter population, that want to change the way campaigns are run. I have yet to hear what the propose change in campaign financing is expected to do for the voters, for the government, for the quality or quantity of candidates, for the fiscal sustainability of our State or the cities. Will this change in campaign financing prevent a Supreme Court Justice from violating laws, will it prevent a Congressman from robbing his campaign funds, will it prevent people from voicing their opinioins on issues or for/against candidates, will it stop the political spin by the candidates and their supporters? What will be the impact of this change that is so important? Is it possible that this change to campaign financing is to distract us from the value that others have in campaign that isn't apparent in its financial value. Lets use Mr. Power as an example, he need not make any dollar contribution to a campaign such as one on canpaign finance reform and yet he can write an article on the Bridge that reaches thousands of people. I would venture that those who's side he supports feel this has great value, and one that many could equate to a paid advertisement and yet his article would not be regulated by the proposed campaign reform. He seems only wanting to regulate those who would be willing to support an advertisement that would be of equivalent value to his writing, for he doesn't seem to raise any concerns about other types of campaign reform. I wonder what will the voter gain from this change, will it improve the quality of the canididates, will it improve the quality of governance for our State, will it ensure there are few violations of State or Federal laws, will it increase the particpation in the election process by voters. I wonder why I should want to see this change happen.
Mike R
Thu, 03/21/2013 - 10:12pm
Duane, I detect a common them in your comments on Mr. Power's editorials: you never see the value in any of his proposals, preferring instead to attack his integrity. In fact, you consistently express complete mystification as to the point he is attempting to make. Campaign disclosure laws may not prevent criminal behavior, but without public scrutiny, the odds are greater that ethics will suffer. The entire purpose of the disclosures is for voters to know which individuals and groups are seeking to influence, or succeeding in influencing, candidates and officials by large or repeated donations. It provides one more piece of information, along with the candidates' voting record, stated views, and resume, for voters to consider in making a decision. I cannot understand why anyone would deliberately refuse to know to whom a candidate is beholden, and why they would consider that information to be of no value. The more informed the electorate, the more open the process, the more pressure on the candidate to do the people's business in an honest manner or face defeat.
Lisa Knowles
Sun, 03/24/2013 - 12:28pm
How free are we when we have hidden agendas, hidden money, hidden support? Our first amendment right to freedom of speech becomes more diluted as those who speak for us (our reps), choose to not speak the truth--rather they hide the truth. They hide their true intentions. It is painful as a voter to try and find the truth. I applaud any effort to become more transparent. I have a doctorate degree and find it difficult. By not holding the integrity line of what is right and what is wrong, and simply siding with party lines, all politicians lose credibility. Hold the line representatives. That's what I ask. Speak the truth, and let us know who supports you and tell us why. Fear of retribution is no excuse. Providing full transparency would be a good start before tackling other issues. The foundation is crumbling. Time to shore up before building another level.
Sun, 03/24/2013 - 9:40pm
Mike, "never…value…his proposals" I disagree, if I didn't see value in the issues Mr. Power raises I wouldn't read and comment on them. What I try to do is offer a different perspective; I try to get people to think about alternative approaches. The themes to my comments here and elsewhere is to encourage listening to what is said and not just to hear what is expected, it is not to start with the answer before accurately framing the issue, to actually have a discussion rather than a pronouncement, and to consider the unintended consequences of the solution. Just as with this issue; Mr. Power sees the money and doesn’t see all the influences. Mr. Power has a platform that reaches thousands of people and without spending money on ads how would other get their voices heard? Mr. Power wants to regulate buying those ads while leaving his platform unregulated. Even you, " entire purpose…seeking to influence…by large or repeated donations", can't see that many contributors donate not to influence a particular candidate but to support those with a pronounced view or history that is aligned with theirs. Nor do you seem to see any other means people can influence candidates through campaign impact that doesn’t include money. “I cannot understand…refuse to know to whom a candidate is beholden, and why they would consider that information to be of no value." Do you believe a candidate is only 'beholding' to those who donate money? Do you see any other campaigning reason a candidate may ‘beholding’ to a person or organization? If you do then why that should also be registered along with donors? Mr. Power wants to control access to campaign money, there no consideration addressing other means of influencing candidates, there is no effort to understand why candidates spend their time on raising money (I recall Senator Proxmire from Wisconsin didn’t). I am grateful and truly appreciative that I am allowed to offer my comments. If my comments offend or are seen as personal attacks rather than staying focused on what is said and done then I apologize