Shirkey: Financial disclosure could discourage political runs

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake

Lansing — Michigan is one of only two states that does not require public officials to disclose personal financial information to identify potential conflicts of interest, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey would prefer it stay that way.

The Clarklake Republican said Tuesday he thinks a personal financial disclosure law would “absolutely” discourage some qualified residents for running for office and told reporters, “I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

Shirkey’s opposition could prove a roadblock for a bipartisan transparency package introduced last month in the House that would require elected officials and candidates for statewide office to disclose significant sources of income, stocks, real estate, business associations and any family members registered as lobbyists.

Supporters say the legislation would help shed light on potential conflicts for public officials who help shape state policy and decide how to spend taxpayer funds.

Sponsoring Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said he thinks the House proposal hits a “sweet spot” by requiring lawmakers to disclose areas of financial interest but not specific dollar amounts that could be used to pinpoint their wealth.

Shirkey said he’ll let the “legislative process” play out but does not personally think a financial disclosure law would have “any value” beyond giving the media more information to “research and ask questions about.”

“Everybody serving has a different, unique circumstance,” said Shirkey, the founder and owner of Orbitform, an engineering and manufacturing company that designs and builds forming, fastening and riveting machines for a variety of industries. “Some, their financial disclosures would be rather simple, and some more complex.”

The House plan would set certain thresholds for disclosure. For instance, it would require officials to list the source and type of income if a source totals more than $5,000 in a calendar year, property worth more than $50,000 and stocks worth $10,000 or more.

LaGrand acknowledged financial disclosure requirements could have a “chilling effect” and discourage some people from running for public office, but he hopes to convince Shirkey that his plan is not overly “intrusive.”

Because candidates would not have to list actual dollar amounts, just categories, “it doesn’t get people bogged down in a question of how rich person A is or person B is that is running for office,” LaGrand said.

The goal is to make sure “we do everything we can to bridge the gap between voter distrust and elected officials,” he added. “I think financial disclosure in general exists so that voters can detect self-dealing.”

Michigan Senate rules prohibit senators from voting on a bill on which they have a direct personal, private or professional interest in, but lawmakers have rarely abstained or been reprimanded for failing to do so.

The House allows lawmakers to abstain from voting because of a potential conflict but does not require them to do so.

LaGrand, who has abstained from votes, voluntarily disclosed his personal financial information last year, reporting an ownership stake in eight different companies, including his law firm, two different distilleries, real estate holding companies, a chair manufacturing company and Egypt Valley Angus Farms.

Idaho is the only other state in the nation that does not require financial disclosure of some kind by public officials, said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The new proposal appears to “walk a line” between “putting enough information out there so people can be confident lawmakers are not voting for their personal interest but not put enough out there to allow people to calculate how much a lawmaker has in his or her bank account,” Mauger said.

The eight-bill proposal would apply to state lawmakers and candidates, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, circuit court judges, court of appeals judges, state board of education members and elected public university board members. The filer would be required to provide financial information for any spouse and dependent children.

The Michigan House and Elections Committee was expected to begin a public debate on the financial disclosure package Wednesday, but the meeting was canceled because of an unrelated GOP caucus meeting on the budget.   

Rep. Julie Calley, a Portland Republican who chairs the committee and sponsored one of the disclosure bills, said she decided to cancel the hearing rather than cut it short. She intends to reschedule it for next week.