Lansing — Despite tacit support from the Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, the Michigan House appears to be stalemated on a major ethics reform because of opposition from a powerful committee chairman.
House and Senate Democrats introduced a package of bills in March that would require all state lawmakers to disclose their personal financial information so constituents could spot potential conflicts of interests. Calley, a Portland Republican considering a 2018 gubernatorial run, and Leonard of DeWitt have both said they’re willing to review the issue.
But the proposal may never receive a House committee hearing.
It is another example of intra-party disagreement on ethics issues after the House unanimously approved a bipartisan package in mid-March to subject documents from the offices of the governor and state lawmakers to open records requests.
The Freedom of Information Act reforms were spurred in part by the Flint water contamination crisis, which prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to voluntarily release tens of thousands of executive office emails after questions were raised about the administration’s lack of action.
But the 11-bill open records legislation is stalled in the GOP-led Senate because of opposition from Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive.
In the latest issue, Democrats have proposed forcing elected officials to disclose private financial information, such as income earned separate from their public salaries, income from trusts as well as any ties to corporations and labor organizations.
Calley indicated he supports the concept of requiring officials to disclose personal financial information, saying it “definitely deserves some attention or review.” Leonard said it’s “certainly something I’m willing to have a discussion on.”
But Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said he’s “generally against the concept,” so the legislation is unlikely to move from the committee. The finance disclosure bills were referred to the House Elections and Ethics Committee, where he is chairman.
“I don’t know if that’s a good requirement to run for elected office; to reveal all your personal finances,” said Miller, calling the move “trendy” but unwise.
The second-term lawmaker said he agrees that constituents should know when their state representative or senator may be embroiled in a potential conflict of interest because of business dealings, stock ownings or other ties to private interests from which they could benefit by legislation they vote for. But he said personal finances are precisely that — personal.
“It’d be a good debate ... (but) life is not black and white,” Miller said. “It’s very gray when or how much a legislator might benefit from a certain vote.”
Packages face time limits
Both legislative packages were introduced earlier this year and can be considered through December 2018 because the two-year session began in January. The Freedom of Information Act reform legislation was carried over from the prior session and continues to encounter a Senate roadblock, just as it did last year.
On requiring the disclosure of legislators’ personal finances, Leonard has said that while it is an interesting idea, he has higher priorities. Unless Leonard pushes Miller to advance the plan, it is likely to die in committee.
“Nine times out of 10, the committee chair gets to decide what advances and what doesn’t advance,” said Craig Mauger, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a state watchdog group. “So this would be one of those situations where even though key officials are looking into this and the public seems to be widely in support of this, at least one person could potentially block it.”
Mauger said voters currently have no way of knowing what major investments or side jobs lawmakers have and so can’t know about potential conflicts of interest.
Those running for Congress must disclose personal financial information, and 47 other states require state lawmakers to disclose similar information.
In 2010, Snyder also recommended during his first gubernatorial campaign that Michigan become the 48th state to do so. The Republican candidate noted then that Vermont and Idaho also don’t require disclosure of personal finances.
“Costly campaigns and a lack of true financial disclosure create a perfect storm where citizens become disenfranchised with politics because the public and the media are unable to follow who is trying to influence policy and for what reasons,” he wrote then. “Michigan needs to take deliberate steps to prevent a statewide culture of corruption from developing.”
But Leonard is now focused on overhauling the state’s teacher retirement system or trying again to pass income tax relief.
“From the day that I became elected speaker of the House back in November ... my top priority was fixing our broken teacher retirement system,” he told reporters.
Obstacles in Senate
In March, the House unanimously approved an 11-bill package to open shielded documents at legislators’ and the governor’s offices to open records requests.
The plan has lost momentum after Meekhof said he and other senators do not support the measure or a similar Senate version of the plan.
Even if the financial disclosure plan gets through the House, it would face obstacles in the Senate.
“We know that Michigan ranks dead last for integrity and dealing with conflict of interest here in the state Legislature,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, at a press conference when Democrats introduced the latest ethics push.
Michigan ranks at the bottom of nearly every measure of political integrity and transparency from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative journalism organization. That includes grades of F on access to information, political financing, executive and legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement.
Michigan is one of two states in the nation that shields offices at the state Legislature and the governor’s office from public records requests.
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said his disclosure proposal is meant to let voters know when lawmakers have a conflict of interest and help repair that reputation.
LaGrand acknowledged he owns a distillery, has owned rental property and is a contractor, a lawyer and an ordained minister. He said constituents should know what votes may benefit lawmakers.
“Really, what we’re trying to get at the heart of is whether representatives are operating out of their own self interest or in the interest of the people,” he said. “And the most reliable way to track people’s interest is to track their financial interests.”
But state lawmakers become more intransigent against ethics overhauls the longer they stay at the Capitol, said Mauger, a former political reporter. Without state law requiring more disclosure, the public often never knows what happens in the darkest corners of state politics, he said.
“Right now, we’re hoping that someone on the inside gets disgruntled,” Mauger said. “It’s the God’s-honest truth; that’s the only way we find out information about what’s the interest of these guys.”