Unlimited political spending plan looms over lame duck

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan legislators would be allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money for super political action committees that support them under legislation that foes and advocates alike are closely watching during the final three days of the legislative session.

The proposal, approved by the Republican-led state Senate in December 2015, does not appear to be a top priority for the House GOP caucus but may still emerge as a bargaining chip as the two-year session nears conclusion.

Supporters say the legislation would codify the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which held that independent political spending by corporations or labor organizations is a form of free speech that cannot be prohibited by the government.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump is unlikely to appoint Supreme Court justices intent on overturning the ruling, but “there’s no reason” the state shouldn’t update its statutes to clarify legal giving, said Steve Linder, a longtime GOP consultant and political fundraiser.

“It’s important our fortunes are controlled by ourselves and not the whims of Washington judicial appointments,” Linder said. “That’s the reason a number of us have advocated for it, and we’re hopeful that we’ll see passage into law.”

But the legislation would go beyond the six-year-old Supreme Court ruling, said Craig Mauger of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who has called the bill Citizens United “on steroids.”

“This bill would empower the biggest donors in our state, the biggest special interest in our state, to have even more influence,” Mauger said.

The legislation, supported by Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive, would create a new class of “independent expenditure committees” in Michigan election law with the authority to raise unlimited funds from corporations or labor groups.

The committees would not be allowed to contribute directly to candidates, but they could raise unlimited funds to support politicians through television commercials, mailers or other means.

Candidates for state offices, who are otherwise subject to strict fundraising limits for their own political committees, could “solicit contributions on behalf of a person that may finance independent expenditures,” effectively raising money for super PACs set up to support them.

The proposal would allow a gubernatorial candidate to attend a fundraiser and ask donors to contribute “millions” of dollars to a super PAC that supports them, Mauger said. That same politician could accept only $6,800 in direct contributions for their own committee.

“This is about influence,” Mauger said. “Citizens United said you can’t put caps on independent groups, but what is ‘independent’ is a key issue. This bill tries to bring independent groups so close to a candidate, you truly have to question their independence.”

Under the legislation, an independent expenditure committee would be prohibited from spending “in concert or cooperation with, or at the request of” a campaign. But the super PAC would be allowed to share attorneys or consultants with a candidate they support so long as those individuals do not “convey material information” about plans, projects or needs of a campaign.

Linder said the legislation would give private-sector donors more ability to support candidates or ballot issues, noting free speech protections allow the media to endorse candidates as they choose.

“I have to go ask the government for permission to do any of it, and if I have to do that, I want as flexible of a system as possible for me to speak out,” he said.

The proposal has sat dormant in the House Elections Committee for nearly two years. It will be up to chairwoman Lisa Lyons to decide whether she wants to take it up this week, GOP spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said.