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Citizens United on steroids

Jocelyn Benson

We deserve to know that the people who represent us in Lansing are truly working for us. Yet every year, more and more dark money flows into our elections, distorting the issues, drowning out our voices, and making it increasingly difficult for us to hold our elected officials accountable.

But instead of trying to fix this, Gov. Rick Snyder has just signed into law a bill that takes advantage of Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that blew the roof off of longstanding limits on corporate and labor union spending in politics. That case established a new right for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates for office, in some instances making it nearly impossible for a candidate to be elected without such support. One small silver lining was that, at least in Michigan, candidates themselves could not directly solicit that money, thus creating a somewhat porous wall between the donor and the politician that would deter the possibility for any quid pro quo or direct corruption.

This new law, dubbed “Citizens United on Steroids” by critics and government watchdogs, changes that. It now allows Michigan politicians to directly solicit unlimited contributions for Super Political Action Committees (PACs) that are supporting their candidacy.

And what’s more, Super PACs don’t have to disclose their donors. This secrecy enables them to anonymously spend millions to get candidates elected, driving politicians’ priorities and focus away from doing what is best for the citizens they are elected to serve.

That means lawmakers who supported this bill voted to give themselves a green light to actively raise unlimited, undisclosed money to support their campaigns.

They voted for secrecy in government, since no one knows who or what special interest is donating millions of dollars to groups propping up candidates.

And they voted to crowd out the voice of everyday hard-working people have in their own government in favor of secret donors and lobbyists.

Michigan already is an outlier for its comparatively minimal requirements for government ethics and oversight. We consistently are given an “F” and ranked dead last among all 50 states in the Center for Public Integrity’s annual survey of ethics and transparency requirements in state government. Conflicts of interest abound, with politicians often voting on or even introducing bills that would lead to a direct financial benefit for them, their former employers or their spouse.

Michigan citizens deserve better.

Instead of codifying and exploiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has caused unprecedented damage to our democracy, our leaders in Lansing should champion reforms that will make government transparent and accountable to the people it serves, like requiring instant disclosure of all money spent to influence our elected officials.

Until then we will continue to lag behind every other state in the country with our elections operating under the shadow of dark money.

Jocelyn Benson is CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) and the former dean of the Wayne State University Law School.