By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (May 4, 2021) — A package of bills intended to review legislators’ financial disclosures do little to increase accountability, multiple experts on combating corruption in government told the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Michigan has no requirements for financial disclosures for anyone in the legislature or executive branch, and is one of just two states without any requirements for the legislature. Without them, it becomes much more difficult to track government officials and determine if important decisions have self-serving ramifications.
While the proposed reforms would be “better than nothing,” said Elizabeth David-Barrett, a professor who leads the Centre for the Study of Corruption, the legislation struck her as “extraordinarily weak.”
The bills would create legislative committees to police their own colleagues in the House and Senate, appointed by the caucus leaders in each chamber. Each year legislators would give the committees a thorough description of their finances, but the disclosures themselves would be kept private and exempt from public records requests.
The committees would meet in private and enforce rules that aren’t written into law, but decided by the majority leadership in each chamber, which usually changes each session.
“If it's not an independent agency, I really don't see the point,” Shruti Shah, the director of the nonpartisan Coalition for Integrity, which monitors governmental ethics in the United States, said in an interview.
David-Barrett, a professor at the University of Sussex, said that in the last 25 years many governments have moved this oversight to bodies which are at least partially independent, “from a sense that that kind of self-regulation wasn't working.”
“Usually these days there's at least a hybrid element, in terms of some more independent body first conducting an investigation,” David-Barrett told MCFN. “Then it might be that the legislative committee would have power to sanction.”
The House Speaker or Senate Majority Leader would also be able to remove committee members “for any reason,” according to the bill’s language. David-Barrett considered that power, along with the lack of independence and transparency, “red flags.”
The package, which the House Elections and Ethics Committee will first hear Tuesday, doesn’t give any specifics about how investigations should be conducted. If the committee finds there was a conflict of interest or ethical breach it can only issue recommendations. The investigation’s materials will then become public.
The Coalition for Integrity released its most recent evaluation of anti-corruption measures in state governments, the S.W.A.M.P Index, in November 2020. Michigan ranked 47th out of 50 states with an unchanged score from 2018.
This legislation likely wouldn’t move Michigan’s position in the index, Shah told MCFN. It lacks nearly all the criteria the index uses to define robust anti-corruption policies.
“(Oversight) can't be just members of the legislature. It has to have essentially the ability to initiate its own investigations, to hold public hearings, to subpoena, to sanction — which is issue fines and injunctions — perhaps even recommend people for removal from office.” Shah said. “Its members also should be protected from removal without cause. It should have the ability to accept anonymous complaints.”
One bill in the package would subject senior executive branch officials, including the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State to the State Board of Ethics, which already exists to police civil service employees. Shah sees it as a double standard.
“It’s not that the ethics agency for the executive branch is that strong, because it certainly doesn't have sanctioning powers, but for the legislature to think that they should be not subject to even the same rules as the executive branch is ridiculous,” she said.
Michigan has long been at the bottom of lists measuring transparency and ethics rules in state government, but the session began with a hopeful sign that that might change.
In his first appearance as Speaker of the House of Representatives Jan. 13, Rep. Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) stood behind a lectern emblazoned with the slogan “transparent and accountable” and made a pledge. He told reporters he was making a “down payment” on a larger package of reforms that would be introduced “in the coming weeks.”
In the intervening weeks, other legislation proposing financial disclosures for state candidates had been introduced before these bills. One had 60 bipartisan co-sponsors — essentially guaranteeing passage if the bills had some up for a vote. It would make the Michigan Department of State the administrator of a financial disclosure system not unlike the state’s campaign finance system, with disclosures made publicly available online.
Rep. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) was a co-sponsor of that legislation last session and submitted a tweaked version of that bill earlier in April. While he backed the package before the committee Tuesday, he emphasized that legislators’ constituents “should have an understanding of if we have conflicts.”
“I think if we're going to be truly transparent, people would be able to see this and invest in the information in knowing that it's accurate and truthful.” he said in an interview. “That's the whole point of transparency.”
One of the most vocal critics of the legislation, Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) is an ardent supporter of financial disclosure requirements for legislators. He and Huizenga had partnered on the package that'd require public financial disclosures, and sees the legislation moving through the House as fundamentally flawed.
"The reason I think that these current bills are so toxic, is because they will actually ultimately erode voter trust and not increase voter trust," LaGrand said. "I'm much more concerned about voter trust than I am about whether we're going to find fraud."
Leadership on both sides of the aisle have instead endorsed the package before committee Tuesday, according to reporting by MLive. It’s also supported by the advocacy group Voters Not Politicians.
In a press release, the group’s executive director Nancy Wang said “this package won’t solve all of the problems in Lansing, but it will be an important first step to put us on the right track to ensure our politicians are accountable to us.”
Another package of bills that’d make the legislature and Governor’s office subject to a form of open records requirements, albeit with some significant caveats, has also passed the House.
Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who emerged as a key roadblock to open records expansion last session, told the Michigan Information & Research Service last week the leadership-supported financial disclosure package and the open records expansion were “moving in the right direction.”