Senate OKs unlimited political donations for groups

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate approved controversial legislation Thursday that would let candidates raise unlimited money for super political action committees that support them and share consultants.

The bills would write super PACs into state law following a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that opened the doors for increased political spending by corporations and labor unions as a form of free speech.

Supporters contend the legislation would “codify” that ruling. But critics have dubbed it “Citizens United on steroids,” arguing it goes beyond the ruling and would blur the lines between candidates and independent groups.

The two-bill package would create a new class of “independent expenditure committees” that could raise and spend unlimited funds in elections. The super PACs could not coordinate directly with campaigns, but the proposal would allow them to share attorneys, consultants and vendors with candidates they support.

“Everybody should have free speech, and the Supreme Court has said that free speech equals money and what you give,” said Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

The legislation passed the upper chamber in a 23-12 vote. Republican Sens. Margaret O’Brien of Portage and Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights joined all 10 Democrats in voting against the measure. The Republican-led House is expected to take up the measure next week.

“Citizens United rigged the system in favor of huge corporations, moneyed interests and the wealthy and gave them undue control over our elections, government policy and elections,” said state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. “Senate Bill 335 is going even further.”

Craig Mauger, executive director of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network, has warned the proposal could undermine strict limits on direct contributions to candidates by allowing them to raise unlimited money for what are supposed to be independent groups.

The two-bill package would allow state candidates to solicit unlimited contributions for super PACs, going beyond Federal Election Commission rules that allow federal candidates to raise up to $5,000 for a super PAC.

“The bottom line is, this makes the swamp even swampier, and it feeds the swamp monsters even more,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, echoing Republican President Donald Trump’s campaign calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.

Approval came one week after Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office said it had made a “good faith effort” to provide a reasonable regulatory framework for super PAC rules but encouraged legislators to make “long overdue” legislative changes to conform with the Citizens United ruling.

GOP attorney Bob LaBrant asked Johnson to clarify rules governing super PAC donors, warning that if the state adhered to a little-known 2014 enforcement action, corporations and labor groups could be facing an “avalanche of campaign finance fines” for past super PAC contributions.

Johnson’s office downplayed that risk in a draft interpretive statement, saying there was ambiguity in the law but that it has usually not issued failure to file and late filing fee notices to entities that contribute to super PACs from their own treasury funds.

Meekhof dismissed concerns raised by Democrats regarding the growing role of money in politics.

“I’m sure the Democrats take advantage of this just like we do,” he told reporters after the vote. “I don’t think it’s Democrat or Republican. All people have free speech, regardless of how they’re organized, and that includes unions.”

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