How to Properly Disclose Expenditures

By on September 18th, 2014


Rich Robinson

How to Properly Disclose Expenditures

September 26, 2014

Shortly after the August primary election, Jack Spencer of the Mackinac Center’s Capitol Confidential newsletter asked me for a little assistance in compiling data on independent spending that may have been pivotal in deciding some of the most contentious legislative primaries. The unfortunate truth is that the picture is very incomplete.

Start with the fact that candidate-focused “issue” advocacy is not subject to any reporting requirement in Michigan. Gongwer News Service reported that Americans for Prosperity-Michigan spent $1 million to send direct mail about primary candidates into 28 contested legislative districts. But since the mailers didn’t tell voters how to vote, only the defects of certain candidates, AFP-MI was under no obligation to tell the Bureau of Elections where they spent money, or who gave them the money they spent.

A number of political action committees (PACs), superPACs and party committees did report their independent expenditures. Party committees have filed post-election campaign finance reports, so we can be reasonably sure that all their primary election activity has been reported by now. But some of it wasn’t reported until four weeks after the election.

Reporting is different for PACs and superPACs. Those committees closed the books on their pre-primary activity on July 20th, so any independent expenditures they made subsequent to that date won’t be reported until October 25th, nearly 12 weeks after the election they were intended to affect.

That kind of delay in reporting is dramatically different from what happens in federal elections. Federal committees are required to report their independent expenditures within 24 hours of when they are made. Now that we are within 60 days of the general election, even “issue” ads about federal candidates must be reported to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours (although donors to the nonprofit corporations that make those electioneering communications are not reported).

There is a provision in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act – Section 33(5) – that requires independent expenditures that are made within 45 days of a special election to be reported to the Bureau of Elections within 48 hours. That’s such a good idea that it should apply for regularly scheduled elections, too.

We’re going to go through this whole scenario of delayed reporting all over again in the run-up to the November general election. PACs and superPACs will close their books for their pre-election campaign finance reports on October 19th. Several of them will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last two weeks before the election that will not be reported until their next regularly scheduled reports in February 2015. We’ll be waiting more than three months to get information that should be reported within 48 hours, before the election.

I know campaign finance reform is not popular with a lot of public officials, but it shouldn’t be impossible. This legislature passed a law to make candidate reporting of campaign finances more frequent in non-election years. That wasn’t too heavy a lift, and everybody got to do a touchdown dance and tell the constituents back home that they’re working hard for transparency and accountability.

Making disclosure of independent expenditures as timely for regular elections as it is, or was, for special elections shouldn’t be a heavy lift either. Timely knowledge of who is backing the candidates should be a voter’s right. Who has the gall to argue with that?

Here’s a formula for the legislature: Go to Section 33(5) of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, PA 388 of 1976. Strike the word, “special,” in the first sentence. Accept accolades for heroic action.

Posterity will love you.

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.

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