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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

Michigan’s Bad Report Card

September 29, 2017

In 2015, I researched and wrote the widely publicized report that concluded Michigan was the worst state in the nation based on government accountability and transparency.


I was one of 50 journalists and academics working on the project for the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity. It was a stressful, arduous process. I was assigned to research our state government’s process of handling legislative, judicial and executive branch functions in 13 categories, each with an emphasis on ethical standards and openness to the public. I interviewed dozens of expert sources and read stacks of documents while searching for thorough answers to about 250 questions. Over the several months of work, I had five different editors challenging me at every step. They were baffled at some of the material I turned in.

How can it be that lobbyists can file disclosure reports on their wining and dining of legislators that are practically meaningless? Is it really possible that no comprehensive set of financial records for judges exists, leaving them free to hide personal conflicts of interest in their courtroom? Michigan actually has an Ethics Board with no power to investigate wrongdoing by state officials or department heads, and no authority to hand out punishment to those found guilty?

My report concluded that this subterfuge was “an honor system with no honor.”

I had no role in crunching the data from the 50 states or calculating the final rankings – Michigan received a grade of “F” in 10 of 13 categories, an F overall, and the worst score in the nation, 51 out of a possible 100.

After the study was published, I participated in several radio news interviews and a university panel discussion about the findings, and among the most common questions posed to me were: What kind of response can we expect in the Legislature to this black mark on our state’s image? How soon do you think Lansing will produce legislation to fix some of these gaping flaws in our system?

Going in the wrong direction

I was skeptical of a quick or thorough reaction from lawmakers, yet I never imagined more than a year of inaction followed by some giant steps backward.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

One of the most basic criticisms of Michigan by good-government advocates takes aim at the campaign finance rules and the role “dark money” plays in state politics. Thanks to loopholes created within the Lansing Beltway, big spenders representing special interests can dramatically influence an election without leaving a trace.

But a bill approved by the State House and Senate and signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Snyder sinks us deeper into campaign secrecy. Under the new law, officials and candidates can get chummy with a so-called SuperPac and rig the system so they benefit from unlimited, anonymous campaign donations from corporations, labor unions or wealthy individuals.

So, the state has slipped from bad to worse while also failing to correct one of the most secretive practices that gives Michigan a black eye.  We are one of just two states that exempts the Legislature and the governor’s office from our basic public disclosure law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

A package of provisions passed by the state House to correct that dubious distinction has lied dormant in a state Senate committee for more than six months, where it has little chance of advancement. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has vowed to kill the bills.

The legislators create the rules, and those rules are crafted to protect the incumbents.

State ranks third in push for more secrecy

Another example of Michigan moving in the wrong direction is the state’s national rank of third in the number of bills – passed or pending – that are designed to increase government secrecy. An Associated Press study found that Michigan, along with Tennessee, has the third-highest number of bills limiting public access to information, at 13, among the 34 states reviewed.

The MLive news agency says a more accurate figure is 19 bills that would weaken the FOIA law, which would put us at No. 2 nationwide, behind only Florida. Two of the Michigan bills have become law so far: legislation limiting public access to police body-camera video, and a provision blocking information about state contracts.

One explanation for these retrograde tactics may be that lawmakers believe government transparency and accountability are, all things considered, a low priority for voters at election time, so bills aimed at a stronger system with greater integrity are routinely brushed aside. Another explanation could be that it takes a certain amount of arrogance and shamelessness to pull off this much insular behavior. 

While legislators in many states, according to the Center for Public Integrity, are working to strengthen their accountability and transparency – and boost their grade on the Center’s next 50-state report card – the Michigan Legislature seems to pursue a grade lower than an “F,” if one existed.

If the folks at the Center called me today to ask what in the world is going on in Michigan, I wouldn’t present documentation or explanations from experts.

Rather, I probably would be speechless.

And then I would simply reply, “I have no idea.”

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

September 28, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski



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