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Michigan is a disgrace among the states

Jack Lessenberry

Yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity, the highly respected nonpartisan watchdog organization, released a long-awaited report on government integrity in all fifty states.

Not surprisingly, most states stink. In Idaho, a lobbyist who represented a company that makes betting machines tried to get the state legislature to buy them to revive the potato state’s economy.

Nor did he tell lawmakers he represented that company. He was exposed, but no worries; what he did was perfectly legal.

In New York, more than a dozen lawmakers have left office in the last three years because of criminal or ethical issues. In Illinois, the tongue-in-cheek tradition holds that governors usually serve two terms: The first in the statehouse, the second in state prison.

Lots of state governments lack integrity. But the worst of all, according to this national study, is Michigan. Yesterday, a principled plastics executive, Mel Ettenson, was the first of many citizens who called or e-mailed me to ask about this. He wondered if I was surprised and whether I had any idea how to wake up the legislature and governor about this.

That actually made me laugh. I wasn’t surprised in the least. Our lawmakers are fully awake, thank you, or at least their leaders are. They helped build this disgraceful system, and they want to keep it that way.

Chad Selweski, a highly respected longtime Macomb County reporter, conducted the study in our state, and touches the low lights in his report, which you can easily find online.

Little was new to me.

One example he cites: Over the last few years I have watched as lawmakers, often led by State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, worked hard to eliminate or head off anything that would expose who owns them or how they do business. As this report details, two years ago, the state senate was working on a bill to double the amount that could be contributed to state political campaigns.

Suddenly, a lobbyist learned that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who oversees elections, was going to require the disclosure of the identities of all campaign donors. That’s something the U.S. Supreme Court said states have a perfect right to do.

Within moments, the lawmakers called a recess, banged out an amendment to override this and allow donors to campaigns like Meekhof’s to keep their identities secret.

They passed it, and Governor Snyder signed it. To quote the report,

“Big spenders in Michigan can dramatically influence an election without leaving a trace.”

One major reason the Center for Public Integrity found us to be the worst of the worst: Our lack of effective disclosure rules. In Michigan, you can have a case before a judge who was given a $10,000 contribution by the guy suing you – and you’d have no right to know that, or to force the judge to recuse himself from the case.

Unfortunately, the Center’s study recommends no quick and easy fix, because there isn’t one. Citizens are going to have to work to take back our state.

That will take time, and will be hard. But if you don’t want to try, plan to go on paying taxes forever to a government that doesn’t fix your roads, educate your kids, or think it has to be accountable to you.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays 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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