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House considers rules putting check on lame duck sessions, lawmaker conflict of interest

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House will begin its next two-year session with legislation seeking transparency and accountability of its members by banning them from voting on legislation that would benefit themselves or their families. 

The chamber also is expected to pass a joint resolution Wednesday, the first day of the 101st Legislature, that would require a two-thirds vote for any legislation passed during lame duck session — a roughly two-month period at the end of session when the Legislature passes some of its most controversial bills as lawmakers' terms come to an end. 

More legislation to increase transparency and accountability in the Legislature is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks, said House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.

"People just don’t trust their government or their politicians," Wentworth said.

"For those of us dedicated to serving our people and our districts, it is hard to hear. But if we’re honest, it's also understandable. Too often we don’t provide them reasons to feel differently."

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, announces efforts to reform lame duck session and conflict of interest rules with Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, on Wednesday.

Copies of Wentworth's lame duck resolution and Rep. Pamela Hornberger's conflict of interest legislation were not immediately available. 

When asked whether the House would consider legislation opening the Legislature and the governor's office to public records requests, Wentworth said "anything that improves the transparency and accountability of government is on the table for this term."

Wentworth's resolution would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass a bill after Election Day in even-numbered years, putting up a barrier to party-line, lame duck votes on controversial bills in the 58-52 Republican House majority. 

"There are a number of reasons lame duck sessions aren’t viewed very favorably," Wentworth said, noting the time crunch before the end of session often prevents consideration of the regular committee process or needed changes in bills. 

Additionally, "people think members who aren’t returning aren’t necessarily accountable to voters for those last votes," Wentworth said. "And they think the Legislature waits for lame duck to vote on controversial issues."

Even if the Senate does not adopt similar legislation, the House would act as a speed bump for any bill lacking a two-thirds House majority from reaching the governor's desk.

Hornberger's bill would prevent lawmakers from voting on bills from which they or their families may personally or professionally benefit. It wasn't immediately clear how a personal or professional benefit would be defined or which members of a lawmaker's family would fall within the law.

"While there are already similar laws on the books they have not been updated or strengthened for decades," said Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township. "Unfortunately during that time Michigan has consistently ranked low for legislative ethics."

At the beginning of last session, similar transparency bills were introduced, including one that would subject the Legislature and governor's office to public records requests. The legislation died in the Senate. 

Financial disclosure legislation also failed last session, keeping Michigan one of two states in the nation without financial disclosure laws for elected officials. Hornberger was the lone no vote in the House Elections and Ethics Committee in 2019 for eight bills that would require state officials and candidates for state office to disclose their financial holdings and those of family members. 

The legislation didn't clear a second House committee and failed to be taken up by the full House.

At the time, Hornberger voiced concern about the effect it would have on people interested in running for office. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, voiced similar concerns about the legislation.

"I just don't think it's necessary," Shirkey told reporters in 2019.