Anger and frustration. We talk about it at the dinner table and family gatherings. We see it on cable news. Why doesn’t government work? Why doesn’t change take place? It is easy to see why Michigan citizens are fed up and distrustful of their government.
Not surprisingly, a study by the respected Center for Michigan found that “residents lack confidence in state government’s ability to carry out its major services, indicating low levels of trust in the institution as a whole.”
So what can we do to fix this problem? Our elected officials must redouble efforts to reassure residents that state government is focused on the prosperity of Michigan’s families and economy. One place to start is with higher ethical standards for government transparency and accountability.
First: Financial disclosure
Michigan is one of only three states that does not require disclosure of personal financial information by elected state officials. This common sense reform would provide new information to help prevent conflicts of interest in government decision-making.
We already require financial transparency from federal officials, so it is not a stretch to include state elected officials, from the governor’s office to the state legislature. I have both sponsored financial disclosure bills as a state legislator and complied with federal disclosure requirements while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is not that difficult.
Second: Release of tax returns
Statewide elected officials and candidates for statewide office should voluntarily release their income tax records. Today, as I have done every year since being elected as Attorney General, I provided my tax returns to the public and the media.
Third: Freedom of Information laws
Michigan is one of only two states in which the governor’s office and legislature are not covered by Freedom of Information laws. The good news is legislation to remedy this is in the legislature right now. With a spate of controversies dominating the news, a new level of accountability for public records would help restore confidence in the integrity of state government.
Fourth: Part-Time Legislature
Forty states have some form of a part-time legislature. Let’s make Michigan 41.
We are fortunate to have many talented and dedicated legislators, on both sides of the aisle, who work with integrity to make Michigan a better place. But in this time of declining trust in government, we cannot be afraid to hit the “refresh” button in Lansing and move Michigan to a part-time legislature with a full-time, laser-like focus on policies like public safety, job creation and education reform, all while saving taxpayers’ money.
Other large states like Texas, Virginia and Georgia have part-time legislatures and are prosperous, ranking among the top 10 states for economic environment. I have long favored exploring a part-time legislature. We can “change it up” and still maintain the checks and balances between our branches of government, as envisioned by the Michigan Constitution.
People across Michigan deserve an accountable, responsive government that reflects their highest hopes and aspirations. We have had a shake-up in Washington. We need a fresh, new approach in Lansing as well.
I stand with bipartisan colleagues like Congressman Dan Kildee in calling for increased ethical standards in government. Now is the time for policy leaders and the legislature to restore trust and transparency for Michigan’s tomorrows.
Bill Schuette is attorney general of Michigan.