It’s a question fundamental to democracy in Michigan: How open and accountable is our state government? On a variety of fronts, the answers are troubling.
Michigan ranked dead last among the states in 2015 in a ranking by the Center for Public Integrity of government accountability and transparency. Its overall grade: F. That has a lot to do with a campaign disclosure system that allows “dark” – or undisclosed – funds to seep into half or more of all campaign spending.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, half of the $3.4 million spent on 2016 Michigan Supreme Court races came from sources that were not disclosed in campaign finance reports. In 2014, 45 percent of $10.4 million spent on Supreme Court races came from undisclosed sources.
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- 2018 Michigan ballot initiatives may decide marijuana, gerrymandering
From 2000 through 2015, MCFN found that $127 million in funds not reported to the state was spent on television advertising for campaigns for state office. In 2017, the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder opened the spigot wider by passing a new law allowing candidates to raise unlimited funds through super PACS as long as they don’t directly coordinate with the PAC.
Where Michigan Ranks
The bottom five states for open and accountable government
South Dakota 47
Source: Center for Public Integrity 2015 “State Integrity Investigation”
Where Michigan Fails
State ranks on specific measures
Executive accountability 50
Legislative accountability 50
Judicial accountability 50
Ethics enforcement 47
Public access to information 42
Source: Center for Public Integrity 2015 “State Integrity Investigation”
Executive, Legislature Still Shielded
The “F” grade also stems from legal walls that continue to shield communications of the governor and legislators.
As the Flint water crisis unfolded in 2014 and 2015, there was growing pressure to extend the state’s Freedom of Information Act to the executive office and state legislators. With more than a dozen current or former city and state officials facing charges tied to the poisoning of that city’s water, critics demanded the right to know what the governor knew and when.
Michigan is one of two states with those FOIA exemptions. The state House in 2016 approved a package of bills to end them. The package did not pass in the state Senate.
Michigan lawmakers earn a base salary of $71,685. But they are free to earn money outside that – with no requirement they report any of that income. It is one of three states that doesn’t require lawmakers to disclose their financial dealings. Bills to require them to do so also have stalled.
A Second Look at Term Limits?
In 1992, voters approved a constitutional amendment setting term limits for legislators and the governor. It limits lawmakers to a combined 14 years in both chambers and makes Michigan one of six states with a lifetime ban on additional service. The idea was to provide be a sensible check on corrupt politicians wielding undue power and influence for decades.
Over time, however, critics say that it has spawned a revolving door of inexperienced legislators unable to deal with complex policy issues and enhanced the power of entrenched lobbyists. A 2017 book, “Implementing Term Limits” by two Wayne State University professors found term limits failed to deliver many of the “good government” results its advocates promised.
Is a Part-Time Legislature the Answer?
With Michigan’s legislators racking up fourth-highest annual pay in the nation – and many state problems left unsolved - they are an easy target for critics bent on changing the system. Michigan is one of 10 states with some type of full-time legislature.
Reformers to continue press a proposal to amend the state constitution to create a part-time legislature limited to a single consecutive 90-day session. The salaries of legislators would roughly be cut in half. Advocates say it would save millions of dollars and open up legislative offices to citizens from all walks of life.
Critics say it would limit contact between legislators and constituents and cede more power to the governor. They argue it also would discourage potential candidates who are unable to take extended leaves from work for a 90-day session. They also point out that legislative pay amounts to about $11 million – a tiny sliver of the state’s total $48 billion budget.
Entrenched Public Cynicism
The new governor and legislature elected in November 2018 will face strong headwinds of public doubt and dissatisfaction. “Fractured Trust,” a 2017 Center for Michigan report based on polls and community meetings with 5,000 diverse statewide residents, found low public trust in the state’s ability to deliver good government. The report found widespread public support for reform of the state emergency manager law governing state oversight of financially troubled local communities. The report also found very low public trust in the transparency of Michigan’s campaign finance system. As of early 2018, state leaders had not acted on those concerns.
KEEP DIGGING: MORE INFORMATION ON GOVERNMENT REFORM
- Center for Michigan: “Fractured Trust: Lost Faith in State Government and How to Restore It.”
- Center for Public Integrity: “Michigan Gets F Grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation”
- Michigan Campaign Finance Network: “Dark Money and Justice: Michigan is Like No Other State”
- MCFN and Bridge Magazine: “In Lansing, Where Potentially Self-Serving Votes Run ‘Rampant’”
Explore the Facts & Issues Guide:
At A Glance
Education & Talent
- K-12 Student Performance: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
- School Reform: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive
- Early Childhood: Michigan preschool funding has improved, but child care still unaffordable
- Higher Ed: College funding cuts in Michigan have led to fewer students, greater debt
Economy & Prosperity
- Economy: Michigan business climate improves, but educated workforce is shrinking
- Jobs & Labor: Demand for Michigan workers is very high, but many have given up looking
- Incomes: Michigan income growth hindered by lack of college graduates
- Business: Business incentives cost Michigan millions, and it’s uncertain they work
Quality of Life
- Public Health: Michigan's adverse health trends track along racal, poverty lines
- Health Care: Health care in rural Michigan communities suffering, despite Obamacare
- Safety Net: $1B of Michigan’s welfare money goes to college students who aren’t poor
- Water Issues: Michigan's Great Lakes are good, but water concerns include lead and Line 5
- Lands & Energy: Michigan battling 22 invasive forest species, high electric bills
- Michigan Tourism: Does state make $8.33 for every $1 spent on Pure Michigan campaign?
- Infrastructure: Michigan needs $4B more per year for infrastructure, but how to pay for it?
- Cities: In Michigan, more than 150 communities are financially distressed
- Rural Michigan: Limited Internet in rural Michigan depresses student, business opportunity
- Public Safety: Michigan pays 18% less per citizen than nat'l average for public safety
Government & Reform
- Michigan Taxes: Michigan gives more tax breaks than it collects for schools, government
- State Spending: Big government? Michigan's state, local workforce 2nd smallest in nation
- Ballot Issues: 2018 Michigan ballot initiatives may decide marijuana, gerrymandering
- Gov't Reform: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change