Let the Sun Shine!
by Rich Robinson
March 16, 2012
“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” — Justice Louis D. Brandeis
It was inspiring to read Craig Ruff’s account of Establishing the Modern Era of Ethics Reform in Dome. Without doubt, in the 1970s, Michigan was a leader among the states in making government transparency a reality.
Thirty-some years later, those reforms need to be rejuvenated. A new State Integrity Index that will be released next week shows that Michigan’s standards of transparency are now among the worst in the nation. Sunshine Week is an appropriate time to take account of some of the many deficiencies Michigan has, and how they can be corrected.
The period since 2000 has been the era of “issue” advertising in state political campaigns. When the political parties, or any other interest group, buy advertising that tells you about a candidate’s suitability for office but doesn’t explicitly tell you how to vote, you’re seeing an issue ad. At least, that’s what the Department of State wants you to believe.
That means the spending doesn’t have to be reported. Nor do the donors who gave the money to the sponsor named on the disclaimer. Since 2000, $70 million worth of the most important ads in Michigan politics were not disclosed in the state campaign finance reporting system. In 2010, alone, $23 million worth of campaign ads were unreported.
I know this to be true because I collected records of the advertising from the public files of state television broadcasters and cable systems.
That’s a lot of influence that left no fingerprints.
How can this be? The Department of State’s interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act has it that a political advertisement is not a campaign expenditure unless it contains the language of express advocacy even though the words, “express advocacy,” are not found in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, nor is the concept.
The statute says that a communication is not an expenditure if it does not “support or oppose a ballot question or a candidate by name or clear inference.”
If the Department of State won’t accept the reality of 21st century U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance jurisprudence and recognize that the functional equivalent of express advocacy meets our statute’s definition of a campaign expenditure, then the Legislature must act to spell it out. It is a gross insult to the people of this state to hide the identities of the people and interest groups who are driving campaigns and steering public policy after Election Day. If shame still exists, $70 million of hidden influence should cause it.
Even campaign finance activity that is disclosed isn’t reported with consistent timeliness. We haven’t seen any reports from Michigan’s 1,200 PACs since last October, and officeholders just ended a 14-month reporting hiatus at the end of January.
The House and Senate have busied themselves with bills to require new political party committees and ballot committees to file quarterly campaign finance reports. That’s good public policy. Never again, phony Oakland Tea Party and RMGN! But why on earth don’t our legislators recognize that the same frequency of reporting is good for all political committees? We shouldn’t have to wait until long after policy debates have been decided to see whose money was going to whom.
Reporting of lobbying activity is another area of major deficiencies. Michigan lobbyists report what they spend and they name their clients, but they provide no correlation between clients and spending. Make it simple. Require lobbyists to report their contracts: Who is being represented, how much they’re paying and what bill, budget or regulation they are trying to affect. That’s standard operating procedure in plenty of states. Why not Michigan?
When lobbyists provide drinks, meals or travel for officeholders or decision makers in the administration, they’re supposed to report who they’re treating. That is, if the amount exceeds reporting thresholds of $57 per month per individual for food, or $750 for travel. In 2011, lobbyists reported spending $90,000 for food and drink for named individuals, $160,000 for group receptions and $6,500 for travel for named individuals. They spent an additional $500,000 for unnamed beneficiaries. Kelley-Cawthorne, alone, spent $124,000 in the food and travel category in 2011, but only $1,000 of that amount had an identified beneficiary. This is another display of contempt for citizen oversight.
Again, we need to simplify. Reporting thresholds for food, travel and financial transactions should be $1. Gifts for entertainment should be prohibited entirely. Officeholders and the executives in the administration should do what their constituents do: manage their paycheck and pay their own way.
This list could go on. Michigan is one of only three states that doesn’t require personal financial disclosure by public officials. But the discerning reader gets it. Resourceful operators who want to hide the ball have been working for decades to undermine Michigan’s once-proud tradition of government transparency. It’s time for some restoration work. Sunshine Week is a good time to start.