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Rich Robinson

Reform and Shenanigans

May 4, 2012

The Senate-passed version of Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s Safe and Fair Elections (SAFE) Initiative was taken up by the House Committee on Redistricting and Elections recently. Sen. David Robertson (R-Grand Blanc) spoke about his desire to bring transparency and accountability to Michigan’s electoral processes as he provided an overview of the bill package.

Sen. Robertson noted that there may not be evidence today of all the problems the SAFE initiative seeks to address but, “Where human beings are involved, shenanigans can occur.”

He touted the SAFE package as a preemptive measure to prevent shenanigans. But a close look at the bills suggests something different – a decidedly mixed bag.

Senate Bill 750 takes a tough stance against committees that have a cash balance of $20,000 and fail to file required campaign finance reports for a period of two years. It provides for felony penalties of up to three years imprisonment for the candidate or committee treasurer, a fine up to $5,000 and, after a prescribed process, forfeiture and seizure of the committee’s funds.

It is unclear how widely spread this problem is, but those are stiff disincentives for anyone thinking about holding a lot of money in a political committee and not reporting on it.

Score one for accountability.

SB 750 also would eliminate the October campaign finance report for the state’s 1,200 PACs during even-numbered election years. That means PACs would not report from three months before the general election until three months after. The unanimous vote of the Michigan Senate appears to be saying that what Michigan citizens need is much less timely disclosure of political spending. Or, as has been suggested, maybe that provision was a “copy and paste” error and the senators didn’t know what their votes meant.

Either way, score one for shenanigans.

Senate Bill 824 would require quarterly campaign finance reports for ballot question committees in addition to pre-election and post-election reports. It would establish a fixed schedule for resolving campaign finance complaints and require web-publishing of documents related to complaints and conciliation agreements. It would impose fines of up to $1,000 for knowingly filing incomplete or inaccurate campaign finance reports.

Score a couple for accountability.

SB 824 would take away local prosecutors’ authority to enforce criminal penalties of the Campaign Finance Act. All such matters would be enforced only by the attorney general and only upon referral of the secretary of state.

Whether you see that as enhanced accountability, or shenanigans, probably depends on whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. And your opinion may change in the future, depending on the identity of our next attorney general and secretary of state.

Perhaps the prickliest element of SB 824 is its new treatment of late contributions – those donations that come to a political committee after the pre-election reports have been filed, up until Election Day. Currently, committees must report every new contribution of $200, or more, within 48 hours.

Under the new paradigm, late donations to candidate committees aren’t subject to 48-hour reporting unless they aggregate to $500 from a donor. Donations to PACs, parties or ballot committees don’t have to be reported in 48 hours unless they aggregate to $2,500 from a donor.

That is much less accountability, not more.

In addition, SB 824 says that any committee that was fined after January 1, 2010 for failure to file a late contribution report on time will be given a refund of the fine it paid. That is utterly self-serving: by the politicians, for the politicians. That measure allows for living above the law by retroactively removing the penalties prescribed by law.

Score a whole basket full for shenanigans.

Gongwer News Service reports the tab for late filing fee amnesty would be $117,000. That would include a $1,325 rebate for Secretary Johnson and, her staff is quick to point out, refunds for Jocelyn Benson, Virg Bernero and David Leyton, among many others.

Nice: Shenanigans for the benefit of Republicans and Democrats.

Finally, SB 824 says that committees that are not directly involved in supporting or opposing candidates or ballot questions shouldn’t have to report late contributions at all. This reasonable-sounding provision is what I call The Money Launderers’ Friend.

One can easily imagine a scenario where the Committee for God & Country, which is engaged in defeating candidates, would report receiving a late contribution of $2 million from the Puppet-Masters Club. The Puppet-Masters Club would not be required to report whose late contributions it aggregated to give $2 million to C4G&C, because it is not directly engaged in defeating candidates. It just passes money to those who are.

With that provision in place, citizens would have to wait until months after an election to learn whose money had been talking. That means much less accountability, not more.

The House will deliberate more on the Senate’s version of the SAFE Initiative. Perhaps the Senate will take up the House’s version. Maybe somewhere along the way transparency and accountability will be served and some legislative shenanigans will be discarded.

Rich Robinson is the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of his employer.

May 3, 2012 · Filed under Robinson Tags: , , ,

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