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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Kildee’s “Make State Gov’t More Open, Honest” Act

March 31, 2017

DETROIT – There are a lot of stories about unethical congressmen, some of which have contained more than a smidgen of truth.  Yes, former U.S. Congressman William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, really was caught with “cold cash,” $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer.  They say he may get out of federal prison sometime in 2023. 

Throughout history, there have been other such cases.

But now for the truly shocking part: When it comes to government integrity and ethical standards, Michigan is the lowest of the low.  Far worse than Congress, Michigan is, in fact, the worst state in the union.  State lawmakers can, and do, indulge in behavior that would get a congressman thrown in jail – except in Lansing, it’s all perfectly legal.

But now, someone is trying to do something about it.  U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) has introduced legislation that would require state lawmakers to be bound by the same ethics rules that congressmen and senators have to observe.  “It came as a surprise to people up here to find that Michigan standards are so pathetically low,” Kildee told me in a phone interview from Washington, while he was awaiting the vote on the Republican health care proposal that never came. 

They are low indeed.  Two years ago, The Center for Public Integrity’s state integrity investigation ranked Michigan dead last – the worst of any state in the nation.   There’s plenty of evidence that this is true – and that the citizens are suffering for it.  Lawmakers do the bidding of lobbyists – then take cushy jobs with them when they are term-limited out of office. 

Michigan legislators can conceal their own financial interests from their constituents.  They can, and do, shake down their government-paid office staff for contributions, maintain secret expense accounts, take gifts from lobbyists, and campaign contribution money from contractors who want state business.

“There are actual consequences here for the lack of ethics,” Kildee said. “It creates a ‘transactional environment’ that really affects people and the public interest.”  For example, he asked, “why is it that any attempt to pass an energy policy bill mysteriously is held up even after the main utilities…” like Consumers’ Power and DTE Energy have reached a consensus?  “It’s because some other interest with money is involved –and the odds are that we will never find out.” 

The congressman noted that I had previously reported on the case of Paul Opsommer, a state representative who did his best to block any new bridge across the Detroit River and then, as soon as he left office, took a job lobbying for the Ambassador Bridge, which wants to maintain its monopoly.  “There are many other examples,” he said.

None of this is good for the citizens or the state.

In January, as soon as the new Congress convened, Kildee introduced HB 554, the “Make State Government More Open, Honest and Transparent Act.”  Actually, it doesn’t compel states like Michigan to clean up their acts – it just gives them a powerful incentive: Unless states adopt the same common sense standards for ethics and integrity required of Congressmen, they would lose the ability to run programs that take federal money. 

Washington, in other words, would take away local control – something no state wants.  That may sound drastic, but there’s no evidence that anything less harsh would work.  It’s fairly clear that Michigan lawmakers can’t be trusted to clean this up themselves.  For proof, consider this: While the famous Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 essentially ended any attempt to limit campaign contributions, the high court said states could require disclosure of where the money came from.

That’s not true in Michigan, where an increasing amount of what’s being spent to influence elections is so-called “dark money” supplied by shadowy committees whose donors can keep their identities secret under Michigan law.  Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson is a Republican, but thought that wasn’t fair.  That November, she announced her office would require full disclosure of campaign donors.  Lawmakers immediately amended a bill to overrule Ms. Johnson and allow campaign donations to stay secret.  The legislature soon passed it, and Governor Rick Snyder signed it. 

Kildee’s bill would not do anything about dark money, but it would clean up a lot of other abuses.  That is, if his bill were ever to pass.  That seems extremely unlikely, unless he can get Republican support.  The congressman, who reportedly is considering a run for governor next year, knows that.  He said he’d be very open to working with the majority party, but “we thought we’d just put it out there to see what kind of initial reaction we might get.”

So far, there hasn’t been much.  The bill was referred, oddly, to a subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, which has shown no interest in taking it up.  The congressman was philosophical about that.  Even if his bill doesn’t go anywhere, “one potential outcome would be to shine a little light on…” how Lansing operates, he said. 

But his bottom line is that, “cleaning up government and holding lawmakers to a high ethical standard should not be a political or partisan issue.  I haven’t met a single Michigander who believes Lansing is too ethical.”

Whatever your politics, on that, it’s hard to disagree.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 30, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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