Michigan House unveils plan to overhaul ethics policies ranked last in country

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Michigan House revealed a plan Tuesday to institute wide-ranging government ethics reforms, targeting policies that have been ranked worst nationally for transparency.

At least some of the bills are proposing fundamental changes for lobbying and disclosure laws, which have been agreed on by House members on both sides of the aisle. They will be introduced later this week and discussed in committee beginning next week.

If all of them became law, they would alter how Lansing operates, providing additional oversight, de-emphasizing the so-called "lame duck" period and changing the House process for deciding when bills take effect. Similar reforms have been debated in Michigan for years.

"When you get outside of the small Lansing and Capitol community and tell people back home how their state government operates, you really see how bizarre some of our rules are and why so many people are losing their faith in government,” House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said. “We must do better and hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must listen to the people who sent us here and understand why they are losing faith."

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Nov. 3, 2020.

The new plan would subject the Legislature and governor's office to open records requests and would require lawmakers to disclose information about their personal finances to a new "oversight panel." Similar ideas have previously drawn criticism from Senate Republican leadership. The Senate and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, would have to sign off on the new proposals for them to become law.

Michigan is one of two states that exempt lawmakers and the governor's office from open records requests and one of only two states that don't require legislators to file any type of disclosure about their personal finances to screen for conflicts of interest.

Those are two reasons the state ranked last nationally when the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit news outlet Center for Public Integrity studied the 50 states in a November 2015 "comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency." The assessment gave states grades for public access to information, electoral oversight and lobbying disclosure, among 10 other categories.

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, and the organization Voters Not Politicians, which led the 2018 push for a citizens redistricting commission, are also backing the new ethics package.

"The people are asked too often to simply trust that elected officials are acting in the public interest and holding themselves accountable. That’s a failed, unacceptable system,” Lasinski said. “These reforms represent meaningful, if incremental, steps that will help restore citizens’ faith in our government by increasing transparency and demanding high ethical standards from public servants."

The new House plan also features an array of lobbying reforms: Registered lobbyists would be generally barred from appointment to state boards, and legislators and department heads would be prohibited from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office. The latter proposal aims to end the so-called "revolving door" between state government and lobbying.

At the end of the 2020 session, former Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, registered to lobby 15 days after casting his final votes in the House.

Under the new proposals, lawmakers would also be banned from taking lobbying jobs out of state while still serving in Michigan, something former Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, effectively did last year.

The Detroit News first reported on Nov. 17 that Warren had been hired by the interest group National Popular Vote and filed a lobbying disclosure on behalf of the organization in Pennsylvania. She also registered to lobby in North Carolina.

"This is an organization that I believe in and that I have known," the Democratic lawmaker said in an interview last year.

The new House plan would also require the support of a super majority of lawmakers for bills to pass during lame duck, the period between the election and the end of the term when departing legislators leave office. The House approved a similar proposal in February.

The House wants to create permanent ethics committee with equal membership from both parties to enforce ethics and conflicts of interest laws and investigate complaints about misconduct.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, right, elbow bumps Donna Lasinski, left, the Michigan House minority leader. They have formed a bipartisan state government ethics reform package.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has voiced opposition to elements of the House plan. At a press conference in January, Shirkey told reporters he was "all in" for transparency but also "pretty dug in" against financial disclosure for lawmakers.

"I think that's fodder ... to go after people," Shirkey said of making information about lawmakers' outside sources of income available to the public.

In 2019, he said  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.”

But Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, said her organization has been working to build support for "a comprehensive package of ethics, transparency and accountability reforms."

"We expect and encourage our legislators to work together in a bipartisan manner to pass these reforms into law as swiftly as possible," Wang said. "These bills won’t solve all of the problems in Lansing, but they will be an important first step to put us on the right track to ensure our politicians are accountable to us."