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Full disclosure on campaign contributions

Since our nation was founded, we’ve believed strongly that the essence of democracy lies in the public’s right to know. That’s the reason behind the words in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or of the right of the people peacefully to assemble.”

But there are forces in the Michigan legislature determined to prevent you from knowing certain things. Knowing, for example, the names of the rich people and special interests who give money to try to influence our votes, and how much they give.

First, a little background. Nearly four years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that there could be no limits on how much corporations or special interests contributed to political campaigns. That came in a decision usually referred to as Citizens United.

But it is important to remember that a majority of the justices also said the people had a right to full disclosure, to know who was trying to influence our elections. Many states do, in fact, require this. But not Michigan, which when it comes to honesty and transparency in campaign financing, ranks with the worst.

Oh, donors do have to report the relatively small amounts they are allowed to give a candidate. But there are no such reporting requirements for so-called issue-oriented ads, which, more and more, dominate campaigns.

Anyone could form a group called, say, Citizens for Good Government, collect millions from special interests, and spend that to smear some candidate. In fact, this so-called “dark money” now represents a large majority of spending in our state Supreme Court campaigns.

Last year, one such group spent heavily to try and falsely convince voters that Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack was friendly to terrorists. She won anyway. But under our laws, neither she nor the voters has any right to find out who was behind those ads. That’s just like being told you’ve been accused of murder, but you aren’t allowed to find out who your accuser is.

For years, civic watchdog Rich Robinson has been calling for this horribly unfair system to be changed. Last week, Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson decided he was right. She announced plans to require groups funding these so-called issue ads to disclose their donors. This provoked an angry reaction from her fellow Republicans.

Within hours, State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof  amended a bill to prevent her from doing that. The bill, SB 661, was designed to double the amount donors could give to any campaign. But Meekhof’s amended the bill to block her from requiring full disclosure -- and immediately shoved it through the Senate.

That was too much for even six of his fellow Republicans, but the bill still passed. Now, it’s before the House. When a reporter asked Meekhof if he thought voters should have the right to know who is funding these ads, the senator said “That‘s your opinion.” 

My opinion is that if this bill becomes law, there will be no accountability whatsoever, and we will have given the rich a green light to buy our elections, no questions asked. If you agree, you might want to let the governor know.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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