Editorial: Lawmakers, come clean about financial conflicts

The Detroit News

State legislators take upon themselves the job of representing their districts' needs, not their own personal interests. The Legislature should pursue a set of bills that would help ensure fiscal transparency while lawmakers are in office. 

Given Michigan's poor track record of legislative accountability, it is past time for the Legislature to require that its members disclose personal finance information — especially when it could inform voters about their representatives' potential conflicts of interest.

Members of the State House of Representatives are sworn in.

A new package of bills introduced in the House last month would require legislators to list sources of income, such as stocks, businesses and real estate, without listing specific monetary amounts. 

"It would screen for conflicts of interest, inform the public and increase their level of trust that legislators are doing the will of their districts," says Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

It would be an improvement for a state that received an "F" rating in the Center for Public Integrity's 2015 State Integrity Investigation, finishing last in the nation. Michigan also finished last in three separate categories for legislative, executive and judicial accountability. 

Similarly, Michigan is one of just two states without laws requiring candidates to disclose personal financial information. 

That should change.

For example, during the 2015-16 session, former Rep. Patrick Somerville, a Republican from Brownstown Township, voted in favor of legislation that would prevent airports from banning ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft from picking up travelers at the airport. At the time, Somerville was employed as an Uber driver. 

In 2016, GOP Sen. Darwin Booher of Southfield voted on a bill which proposed to increase salaries for circuit court judges by $12,000. His daughter, Kimberly Booher, has served as a judge for Michigan's 49th Circuit Court since 2014.

In an attempt to be more transparent, 15 members of the Michigan Legislature willingly disclosed their own personal finance information last year. More legislators would be wise to follow this example.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, opposes the transparency legislation, saying he fears it would deter candidates from running for office. 

His counterpart in the House is more supportive. Before becoming Speaker this year, Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, sponsored a financial transparency bill, according to his spokesman Gideon D'Assandro. 

"Chatfield supports increased transparency in concept because the people of Michigan deserve that from their government," D'Assandro says. 

Elected officials assume office with full knowledge of their duty to represent the interests of their district. 

The Michigan Legislature must strive to improve government accountability. Requiring more transparent personal finance disclosure among lawmakers would be a good step to increasing the voters' trust.