Michigan Senate: Just let money have its way in politics

SB 661 will double contribution limits, prevent accountability

LANSING - A very bad bill passed the Senate Committee on Local Government and Elections and the full Michigan Senate today, on a very fast track. Senate Bill 661 originally had the purpose of doubling limits on campaign finance contributions to state and local candidates for office. After an hour-long recess in the committee hearing, SB 661 was amended in an attempt to preclude an administrative process for developing new disclosure requirements for millions of dollars-worth of dark money campaign advertisements that was announced by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson prior to the recess.

SB 661 proposed to double contribution limits for state and local candidates for office that have not been increased for years. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network offered testimony to the committee that introduced the statistical truth that 99.99 percent of Michiganders are not effected by current contribution limits.

• In the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, just 820 Michiganders made maximum contributions. 99.992 percent of Michiganders could have given more to the candidate of their choice, if they had chosen to do so.

• The four members of the Senate Committee on Local Government and Elections received a total of 32 maximum contributions of $1,000 from their constituents in 2010. That is one person giving the maximum for every 33,000 constituents; 99.997 percent of the committee members' constituents could have given more, if they'd chosen to do so.

• In the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, a record 1,508 Michiganders gave maximum contributions of $3,400. Still, 99.985 percent of Michiganders could have given more, if they'd chosen.

"The proposed increase in contribution limits is a sop to the one percent of one percent of Michiganders who might like to own a greater stake in campaign finance action, so they can assert greater leverage in all things political," said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

During the first minutes of the Local Government and Elections meeting, the Michigan Department of State released publicly its proposed response to a request from the State Bar of Michigan to require disclosure of donors who sponsor millions of dollars-worth of candidate focused advertisements in state judicial campaigns. In essence, the State Bar had asked that a nine year-old interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act be set aside in view of several seminal U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance decisions, and the effect of the law be returned to its original language: That any communication conveying a clear inference of support or opposition of a candidate is a campaign expenditure and it must be disclosed.

The current controlling interpretation of the Act says that only communications with magic words of express advocacy, such as, "vote for," "vote against," "support," "defeat," and the like, are subject to mandatory disclosure.

The Department of State's letter to the State Bar of Michigan said that it could not carve out special rules for disclosure in judicial campaigns, and the Department denied the State Bar's request.

Simultaneously, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson issued a press release that said that something had to be done to make unreported campaign spending for "issue" advertising accountable. Secretary Johnson's release said a "loophole" in the law allows the spending without reporting, and she proposed a new administrative rule to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to require disclosure.

When the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee returned from its recess, it amended SB 661 by including a changed definition for a campaign expenditure, proposing to make it a matter of law that only communications that include magic words of express advocacy are expenditures, unless they are uttered by a public body.

The amended definition is a brazen attempt to preclude disclosure of campaign spending that merely includes clear inference of support or opposition. In effect, the majority of the full Senate, which later passed the committee's bill, is trying to kill Secretary Johnson's proposal for a new administrative rule on campaign disclosure.

"The citizens of Michigan should know that Sen. Arlan Meekhof and his Senate colleagues who voted for this bill are seeking to give more leverage over legislative processes to the one in 10,000 Michiganders who make maximum campaign contributions, while they try to kill any possibility of accountability for the millions of dollars of dark money spending in state campaigns," said MCFN's Robinson. "Michigan is earning a reputation as the dark money capital of American politics."

"If this bill passes the House, it deserves to be vetoed," added Robinson.

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