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Split among GOP elected officials over 'dark money'

Jake Neher

Republicans in Lansing are split over whether people who bankroll so-called “issue ads” should be allowed to remain anonymous. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed a rule to require disclosure just hours before Michigan Senate Republicans voted to block her effort.

Issue ads attack or support politicians or causes without using what are called “magic words” such as “vote for” or “elect” that would make them campaign ads. Unlike campaign ads, the money behind issue ads can be anonymous. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson says, too often, issue ads are just thinly disguised political ads, and people should know who is paying for them.

“…We do need across-the-board disclosure, so we have turned in an administrative rule to require just that,” she said.

Johnson rejected a request from the State Bar of Michigan to require disclosure of issue ads related to judicial races. But she said that was only because there’s no rule on the book to allow it.

Johnson says her proposal is patterned after a Wisconsin rule that has withstood court challenges. The US Supreme Court has upheld issue ads, but has allowed states to set disclosure requirements.

Some Republicans argue that disclosure requirements infringe on free speech rights.

Government has no right to target and punish the free speech of individuals, whether or not it is unpopular or delivered through an unpopular medium,” said Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund. It’s an independent political fund backed by Grand Rapids billionaire Dick DeVos.

The GOP-led Michigan Senate acted quickly to amend and approve a campaign finance bill to put the status quo into law. That would effectively block any rule enacted by the Secretary of State.

Democrats slammed the Senate action.

“It is exactly the opposite of what the secretary of state proposed to close loopholes in the act,” said Senator Coleman Young (D-Detroit). “This is the hypocrisy in our democracy.”

The Senate measure also doubled the amount of money individual donors can give to political campaigns.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.