Opinion: Government lacks public's faith

Steve Marino
Michigan law does not require elected representatives to disclose their finances, Marino writes.

In a state with ethics laws ranked the lowest in the country, it’s no wonder Michigan residents are sometimes skeptical of the way our government operates.

In a 2016 study conducted by The Center for Michigan, the overwhelming majority of participants expressed “low” or “very low” trust in state government’s ability to perform core functions.

The first step in rebuilding the public’s trust is to pass laws that increase transparency and allow voters to hold their elected officials accountable. That’s why I have introduced several pieces of legislation to make key common-sense ethics reforms.

Right now, 48 states and the federal government require their elected representatives to disclose their finances. Michigan does not, which means residents are left without any way to know if a public official has a serious conflict of interest with an issue they are working on.

We can boost people’s confidence in their government by approving a bipartisan plan that is currently under consideration in the House Ways and Means Committee. Our measure would reveal potential conflicts of interest by requiring candidates for and officeholders of the legislative, executive and judicial branches to fill out a financial disclosure form.

Michigan residents would be able to read the forms and easily see whether the people they elect have financial interests and potential conflicts. This would go a long way toward assuring people that policies are developed in the public’s best interest, and not for an elected official’s private gain.

Another proposal I introduced this week would broaden our state’s ethics laws to include the immediate family members of public employees.

For example, these bills would prohibit a public official’s family from accepting a gift, money or anything else of value that may influence the employee’s official duties. It would also prevent them from using confidential information to engage in a business transaction that results in financial gain.

In addition, this legislation would require the State Board of Ethics to issue a public annual report detailing its actions, investigations and decisions. It also authorizes the Board of Ethics to advise public bodies on existing or proposed rules, regulations, legislation and ordinances that pertain to ethical conduct of public officials or employees. These changes will allow the Board of Ethics to take a more proactive approach and address potential issues before they arise.

I have also introduced legislation to add transparency and accountability to the process the state uses to purchase goods and services. This proposal would require the state to publicly announce all the contracts it awards within 48 hours. This would include the name of the vendor and total amount of the contract awarded.

Another piece of this proposal would establish a process to ban bad vendors that have been convicted of a crime related to procuring or performing a state contract or a crime that otherwise negatively reflects on the vendor’s business integrity.

All these reforms are common sense, but none of them are currently spelled out in Michigan law. It’s time to make sure the law is clear so elected officials and government employees know exactly what’s expected of them, and to ensure they can be held accountable if they take part in any unethical behavior.

State Rep. Steve Marino represents Harrison Township and portions of Clinton and Macomb townships in the Michigan House.