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Trying to fix Michigan's disgraceful legislative ethics

Jack Lessenberry

When it comes to ethics and integrity in government, Michigan is a disgrace. That’s not just my opinion. A little over a year ago, the Center for Public Integrity ranked our legislature worst among the fifty states in an analysis of state government transparency and accountability. We have few restraints on legislative behavior.

Lawmakers often do the bidding of lobbyists, knowing they will be term-limited out of a job in a few short years. Paul Opsommer, while chair of the House Transportation Committee, did everything he could to prevent the construction of a new bridge over the Detroit River. As soon as he left the legislature, he took a job as a lobbyist for Matty Moroun, the owner of the existing Ambassador Bridge, who wants to preserve his monopoly.

That would have been illegal had Opsommer been a congressman. So would many other things Michigan lawmakers do. Well, CongressmanDan Kildee of Flint recently introduced legislation to hold Michigan legislators to the standards Congressmen are held. My guess is that most voters have no idea there’s a difference.

Journalist Emily Lawler of MLive.comquoted Kildee as saying that voters “unfortunately find out the hard way … when legislation that should move forward doesn’t because somebody has an interest, or there’s dark money that’s pouring in that goes unreported.”

Dark money – campaign spending by donors who are allowed to keep their identities secret – is a huge problem. As my colleague Steve Carmody reported on Michigan Radio yesterday, half of all the money spent on two state Supreme Court races last year came from undisclosed sources. Democrats weren’t trying hard to win those races against the Republican incumbents. One of their candidates lost by more than two to one.

But he might count that as a moral victory, given that Democrats were outspent, according to Craig Mauger of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, by a factor of 34 to one. Half the money spent on the incumbents was dark money.

By the way, don’t think you can ever expect the legislature to clean up its own act. In late 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson announced new rules to require full disclosure of campaign donors in all races. The legislature then immediately tacked on an amendment to another bill overruling her and allowing the donors to stay secret.

Congressman Kildee’sbill, HR 554,would prevent a number of abuses, including allowing ex-lawmakers from going to work for the same special interest they protected in Lansing. If Kildee’s bill passed, legislators could no longer accept gifts from lobbyists. They would have to disclose outside income and investments.

State contractors would no longer be allowed to make campaign contributions, and lawmakers would no longer be allowed to have secret office expense slush funds.

These are all common sense reforms. Unfortunately, this bill is likely to go nowhere. Kildee is a Democrat, and the Republicans who control Congress have no interest in clipping the wings of their fellow Republicans who run the Michigan legislature.

What we need is for one of our state’s Republican congressmen to come forward and co-sponsor his bill, which would do a lot to restore our government to the people.

The odds against that may be long. But we could at least try to pressure them, and dream.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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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