Republican legislative reforms that could dilute the powers of the incoming Democratic Attorney General and Secretary of State moved closer to becoming law Wednesday, despite opposition from Democrats, progressives and campaign finance watchdogs.
Michigan senators moved to overhaul the state’s campaign finance system, passing bills along party lines to switch oversight from the Secretary of State to a newly-created commission of partisans. Representatives in the House voted to pass a bill that would give the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits.
Proponents say the measures are common-sense reforms, but opponents call them a power grab to wrest control from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, who in January will occupy offices that have been held by Republicans since 2003.
A new campaign finance commission
The campaign finance legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, would create the “Fair Political Practices Commission,” which would be responsible for all campaign-finance related duties now handled by the Secretary of State’s office.
The governor would appoint three Republicans and three Democrats to the commission from a list of candidates compiled by the state parties, a system modeled on the Federal Election Commission.
“We are attempting to put together a board here that would have to act in a bipartisan fashion,” Robertson told reporters following the vote. “We have heard a lot from the other side over the years about the need for bipartisanship in all things, here is an opportunity for them to embrace it.”
Chris Thomas, the former state director of elections who has served under governors of both parties, said the package is a clear power grab and a huge step backward.
“I will guarantee a bipartisan operation is far more political than a partisan Secretary of State,” Thomas said, noting that he has worked for the Federal Election Commission as well as with state campaign finance.
The passage came during a chaotic lame duck session in which Republican legislators have hastily introduced and passed legislation that would hedge the power of incoming Democratic leaders and loosen environmental standards. The bill will now move to the Senate floor before it can go to a House committee, the House floor and finally the governor’s desk.
Eric Doster, a Lansing-area attorney who has long advocated on behalf of conservative groups told the committee that the state Constitution doesn’t designate the Secretary of State to oversee campaign finance.
Instead, he said, the Legislature is the steward.
Doster said “the idea is not new,” and has been percolating since the failed 2008 Reform Michigan Government Now initiative. He pointed to last month’s passage of Proposal 2, which appoints a bipartisan commission to oversee political redistricting, as proof that voters want change.
“It is clear that Michigan voters want these important areas to be done by an independent citizens commission,” said Doster, who argued against that same proposal in the Michigan Supreme Court this summer.
Representatives from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and America Votes, a progressive advocacy organization, opposed the bill.
Craig Mauger of the campaign finance group noted the new commission would be modeled on the Federal Elections Commission, which he said deadlocks at least once every 10 cases.
The bill package would change an effective system into a far more ineffective one, Mauger said.
“I didn’t hear any reasons to change the system we have currently,” he said. “What are the factual reasons for changing the system we currently have?”
Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive politics, a national nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, told Bridge via email that deadlock at the Federal Election Commission has presented "huge impediments" to addressing "even the most brazen examples of dark money funneled into elections" and other issues.
"I couldn't say whether that would pan out any better at the state level," she said, "but I think it is important to address the issues deadlock has presented at the federal level to make sure they wouldn't be replicated."
His staff had found 23 other states whose campaign finance systems were controlled by commissions akin to this, Robertson said.
Echoing the concerns of other progressive groups during the lame duck session, Patrick Schuh of America Votes urged the committee to take more time to consider the impact of the legislation.
Robertson owes nearly $2,000 in fees related to campaign finance violations, but told reporters that it was not a factor in deciding to introduce the legislation.
“I’ve complied with state law with regard to my own situation in every respect and I continue to,” he said.
The committee voted to approve the bill package 4-1 along party lines.
A legislative voice in court
Another bill that would give the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits passed with a 58-50 House vote Wednesday evening. Like many other pieces of lame-duck legislation, the bill's life has just begun: It was introduced Thursday, abruptly passed through committee Tuesday after protestors and raucous applause interrupted the hearing, and brought to the House floor Wednesday.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, said the it does not encroach upon the powers of the attorney general and is simply intended to give the Legislature a voice in court.
"It is regrettable that this bill has been lumped in with other pending legislation," he said on the floor Wednesday, urging his colleagues to review the proposal based on its own merits. "Don’t consider it something done in connection or combined with other proposed legislation."
Five Democratic legislators voiced their opposition, all arguing it is unnecessary and overreaching because the Legislature already has the power to intervene in lawsuits if the court grants permission. Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said the new power would create confusion over who is representing the interests of Michigan voters in court — their attorney general or Legislature?
"Voting today in favor of House Bill 6553 will send to Michiganders the message that their vote and their voice does not matter as much as the majority’s need to hold on to power by any means necessary," said Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Ann Arbor.
The incoming Speaker of the House, Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said he "understand(s) some of the criticism of this bill" because he wishes it was introduced and debated months ago.
"However it is incumbent on us to not let criticism or fear of opposition stop us from enacting sound public policy," he said.
Five Republican representatives voted with Democrats against the bill: Reps. Julie Calley, Larry Inman, David Maturen, Dave Pagel and Brett Roberts. The bill will now move to the Senate, where it will first be considered in committee before going to the floor.