Editorial: Beef up state ethics rules

The Detroit News

Add to the things that make lawmaking in Michigan such a low performance enterprise its ranking as the state with the loosest ethics laws in the nation.

Michigan, along with 11 other states, gets an F grade from the Center for Public Integrity for accountability for all three branches of government, public access to information, transparency of the lobbying process and enforcement of the weak ethics laws that do exist. Of those worst states, Michigan sits at the very bottom, according to the center’s rankings.

Lawmakers in Michigan are already among a small handful nationwide who are truly full time, meaning they are in the Capitol longer each year and more dependent on their state paychecks. Term limits have led to more pogo sticking, with lawmakers no sooner elected to one job when they start looking toward their next office. That chronic lack of experience among the elected leaders has increased the influence of lobbyists and staffers.

There are very few clear rules on how lobbyists can influence legislators. Dinners, sporting events and gifts are all OK. Stories are legion in Lansing of lawmakers running up big restaurant and bar tabs, and making phone calls to lobbyists for their credit card numbers.

One lobbying firm, Karoub Associates, has a swanky reception room in its headquarters near the Capitol where lawmakers and lobbyists can relax and mingle. And fundraise. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that 58 fundraisers were held at Karoub’s headquarters last year.

And politicians can move from elected office to lobbying their former colleagues with no waiting period.

The first order of business for Michigan is to fully open its records by ending exemptions for the executive and legislative branches. The massive voluntary email dumps by Gov. Rick Snyder related to the Flint water crisis reveal the importance of the public having access to such information.

Without those emails, it would have been impossible to piece together the decision-making process that led to the tragedy. And officials should not be able to skirt disclosure laws by doing state business on private email accounts.

Beyond full transparency, Michigan must also make its ethics rules ironclad. Firm caps should be placed on the value of meals, tickets and other gifts lawmakers and their families can accept from lobbyists and those seeking to do business with state government, and each one should be publicly reported and posted online.

Michigan should not only adopt tighter ethics rules, it should provide the funding to enforce them, as well as an independent watchdog. Annual reports should be issued assessing compliance by elected officials to the rules.

Any effort to bring more accountability and transparency to state government won’t be complete without addressing the open meetings law. The University of Michigan’s board of regents, in particular, has chosen to do much of the school’s business in the dark, and the courts, unfortunately, have supported that poor choice.

And a waiting period should be in place before an elected official can join a lobbying firm after leaving office.

Michigan can do better in holding its officials to higher ethical standards. If lawmakers won’t take up the issue themselves, then a ballot initiative is in order.