House OKs ethics reform with financial disclosure, lobby limits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Amid debate over whether the legislation went far enough, Michigan House members on Wednesday passed 13 bills and one joint resolution that proponents hope will boost transparency and ethics among lawmakers. 

The bills seek to create an ethics committee in each chamber, to require confidential financial disclosures from members and to prevent legislators and senior administration officials from lobbying for two years after leaving office. 

The bills move to the Senate next, where Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has expressed concerns that financial disclosure requirements could discourage people from running for office. 

Michigan House of Representatives is seen in this file photo from 2018.

The lobbying proposals passed by large margins in the House, but the financial disclosure and ethics committee bills were the subject of some debate on the House floor because of provisions that would keep both aspects confidential until or unless there is a formal finding of wrongdoing. 

Still, some Democrats joined Republicans in support of the ethics committee and financial disclosure bills.

“We send disclosure forms to a secret committee that is exempt from the Open Meetings Act and that is staffed or filled with politicians," said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, in opposition to the legislation. "That has the potential to trigger blackmail dynamics. It certainly looks like a swamp. It doesn’t look like draining a swamp.”

But Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Hillsdale, defended the proposals, noting the bills have been criticized on claims that they don't go far enough as well as claims that the legislation goes so far as to discourage lawmakers from running for office out of privacy concerns. 

"This plan does not treat becoming a public figure as an invitation to have one’s life pored over," Fink said. 

"No plan, including this one, is perfect but the critics from every angle ought to recognize that their solutions are imperfect too and consider whether, compared to the alternatives, we are advancing the cause of transparency and integrity in government today," he said.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, celebrated the legislative package and thanked Fink and House Elections and Ethics Committee Chairwoman Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, for their work. 

“The simple truth is people are losing faith in their government, and the problem gets a little worse every day,” Wentworth said. “We need to listen to what the people are telling us and start fixing the broken culture in the halls of government. This package of bills addresses some of the biggest concerns people have shared with me and gives all of us more peace of mind that our public servants are truly working for us.”

The legislation passed Wednesday would create separate committees in the House and Senate with equal representation from both parties to investigate and provide advisory opinions on potential conflicts, ethical violations or complaints from members. 

Committee meetings and records largely would be confidential and exempt from the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act. But the committee would have to provide its determination, evidence and recommendations within 10 days if it determined a member willfully violated a chamber rule. 

Lawmakers would be required to file an annual confidential conflict of interest report each year and abstain from votes from which they would have a personal or professional interest. 

The conflict of interest report filed each year would contain names of family members, their employers'  names, sources of income of more than $5,000, the addresses of properties held by the lawmaker or family members, a description of investments if the fair market value is more than $10,000, whether a family member is also a registered lobbyists or any interests in a legal entity of more than $10,000.  

The requirements for disclosure would extend to state officers such as the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, and members of various commissions, including the State Board of Education. State officials would be required to report the disclosures to the state Board of Ethics rather than the Secretary of the Senate or Clerk of the House responsible for receiving lawmaker disclosures.

The bills would prohibit a lawmaker, state official or state department leader from performing work that would require them to register as a lobbyist for two years after leaving their positions and would ban lawmakers from receiving compensation for communicating in an attempt to influence individuals in the executive or legislative branches.

The legislation also would prohibit lobbyists from being appointed to a civil position by the governor or Legislature unless officials could prove there was no conflict of interest in the appointment. 

Another bill would increase the fine for giving a gift of more than $3,000, which is currently a misdemeanor under the state's lobbyist registration law, from $5,000 to $7,5000. 

A joint resolution passed 81-28 Wednesday would allow the House and Senate to suspend the expense allowances and salary of a member who acted unethically or is excessively absent as well as require a record roll call vote to give a bill immediate effect.

A record roll call vote for immediate effect currently is not required by the Legislature, a provision that prompted unsuccessful litigation in 2012. 

Because it would require a constitutional amendment, the joint resolution needs two-thirds support from the Senate, then approval by voters at the next general election to take effect.