Viewpoint: Michigan earns 'F' for transparency, while legislature helps it stay there

NOTE: This is a column that was written for and first published by Bridge Magazine.

By CRAIG MAUGER, MCFN's executive director

Maybe the idea came to lawmakers in their sleep the night before they voted.

Maybe a glass bottle with the proposal inside washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan and a legislator discovered it.

Or maybe, the bill was found on a droid located somewhere in a Star Wars universe.

Now a month after our lawmakers added 41 pages to a campaign finance bill and within hours voted it through to the governor for his signature, we’re still not 100 percent sure who came up with the bill’s most controversial changes.

The heavily changed bill, signed into law as Public Act 269, provides a series of technical reforms backed by large corporations. It will also allow more money to flow into our political system by stating that contributions that go to pay campaign debt created in past election cycles don’t have to apply to those cycles’ contribution limits.

Considering our current set of officeholders have a combined $7 million in campaign debt and many big-time donors who’ve already given maximum contributions for the cycles where that debt was created, that’s a significant change.

But causing a greater stir, and potentially a lawsuit, is another change added to the bill late in the evening on Dec. 16. It bans local governments from using taxpayer dollars on radio, TV or mailings that provide any information on local ballot proposals 60 days before an election.

Local government officials despise the change, because it seriously inhibits their ability to explain often complicated local ballot proposals.

While local governments are already banned from using taxpayer dollars to explicitly tell people to vote yes or no on a proposal, supporters of the change say that cities and schools are blurring the line between telling people to vote a certain way and providing factual information, as previously permitted.

The new law, the take-your-ball-and-go-home method of fixing this situation, wasn’t publicly vetted and seems to contradict legislators’ past actions.

Similar line-blurring didn’t matter to lawmakers in 2013, when they passed a bill that exempted campaign expenditures that don’t expressly tell you to vote one way or another from disclosure requirements.

And the issue of taxpayer dollars being used to inform voters about ballot proposals hasn’t mattered to lawmakers previously as they’ve repeatedly sent out mailers from their own offices about statewide ballot proposals.

Although the local ballot question change has faced major pushback — even from some of the Republicans who voted for it — no one has come out publicly as the person or group that pushed for the “reform.”

What makes the situation particularly curious is the fact that there hasn’t been a committee hearing on the ballot proposal language or a standalone bill focused on the matter previously introduced this session.

In fact, over the past 10 years, there have been some 17,000 bills introduced in the Legislature, and not one previously focused on the change that lawmakers quickly approved in December.

The popular speculation is that the wealthy West Michigan donors wanted the change. But we can’t know for sure. And that’s a problem.

Our legislature is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And our lobbying laws provide little insight about who is wining and dining lawmakers in favor of what specific policy changes.

But the new law seems to point to a greater flaw within our state’s political system.

It paints a picture that says if you can make high-dollar campaign contributions you can get legislation you want inserted in a bill just before a vote, you can get the Governor to the sign the bill although he admits he has problems with it, and the whole time, no one even has to know you requested the change.

In 2015, Michigan got an F grade — the lowest among all states — in an assessment of transparency and accountability from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

This new law is a reminder why.

But sadly, I doubt many of us would be successful if we dialed up legislative leaders and asked them to throw some transparency initiatives or new lobbying disclosure requirements in a bill on the House or Senate floor and to vote it out as soon as possible.

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