Reforms sought on recall fundraising after Whitmer raises millions extra

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ability to accept excess campaign contributions because of a recall is generating legislation in the Michigan House to reform a practice that critics have called a loophole.

Under a House proposal that received a Tuesday hearing, candidates would be required to create a separate fund to hold contributions related to the recall instead of mixing the extra cash with normal political donations. 

The bill would bar a candidate facing recall from raising money to defend against the recall until the group organizing the recall had collected all signatures necessary to get the effort on the ballot. After that threshold is met, a targeted recall candidate would need to form a recall committee with a treasurer before accepting contributions. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ability to accept excess campaign contributions because of a recall is generating legislation to reform what critics have called a loophole in the state's campaign finance rules.

The legislation would bar the commingling of funds between a recall committee and other committees and, at the conclusion of a recall election, unspent money would have to be returned to donors. 

The bill would "prohibit candidates from unlimited fundraising from the mere threat of a recall," said sponsor Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, R-Norton Shores. 

"This bill crafts a solution that balances the unique circumstances of facing a recall election with a legitimate framework to ensure funds intended to defend against a recall aren't abused," VanWoerkom said during a Tuesday House Elections and Ethics Committee hearing.

The legislation stems from Whitmer's use last year of a 1980s recall policy to collect about $4 million in contributions above the state's normal giving limits, which are capped for individual donors at $7,150 for a statewide candidate committee. 

Whitmer said the 1980s policy allowed her to collect above state limits because of several recall efforts aimed at her. But opponents have noted state policy requires the recall petitions to be active in order for the cap to be lifted and they argued the ones against Whitmer were not. 

The Bureau of Elections in December agreed that the "mere act of forming and registering a recall committee" isn't enough to raise contribution limits. Instead, a recall committee must also take some other action to be considered active, such as spending money, soliciting funds or actively gathering signatures, the bureau said. 

But the bureau also noted that the exact definitions of when a recall effort is active versus inactive and when that would result in a closure of the increased contribution window was not clear prior to Tuesday's decision. 

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund has asked the Bureau of Elections to reconsider the policy.

In the meantime, Whitmer's campaign acknowledge the recalls against her were no longer active and contributed about $3.5 million of the funds it collected to the Michigan Democratic Party.

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.