Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 21, 2013

Phil Power: Sunshine Week didn't shine

BY PHIL POWER
Columnist

---- — Last week was National Sunshine Week, designed to draw attention to the need for openness and transparency in government.

And there’s no doubt that exposing the workings of government and politics to healthy daylight makes things cleaner and better.

Yet over the years, I’ve watched National Sunshine Weeks come and go without much actually changing. So sadly, I’m more than a bit skeptical about the chances of two proposals to improve campaign donation reporting that surfaced last week.

One, a package of 18 bills from the minority Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, would ban elected officials from lobbying for two years after leaving office, require a candidate who switches parties to pay back any contributions collected before the switch and, among other things, prohibit foreign-controlled corporations from making “independent” expenditures in campaigns.

In introducing the package, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) said citizens deserve to know what’s going on, who’s doing what and who’s paying for it. But Ari Adler, spokesman for House Republicans, said the legislation does not provide true reform because labor unions would be largely exempt from the proposed new requirements.

Since the GOP controls both houses of the Legislature, this package isn’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the Republican incumbent, says she wants to require political campaigns to report contributions within 48 hours of having received them. Under current law, state campaigns and committees for or against ballot issues only have to report contributions in January and again before and after the primary and general elections. As a result, tons of money gets slipped into the political process before anybody knows anything about it.

Johnson, who presumably will be running for re-election next year, would have any ballot issue contribution more than $1,000 reported within two days, and be posted online and completely available to the citizens in three. She also proposed the same requirement for candidates for state offices, as well as mayors, township trustees and other city officials.

“I understand how things can be done to withhold information from the public that really deserves to know,” she said.

Her suggestion was greeted with caution. Bob McCann, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, said “certainly there is support on our side of the aisle” for ways to improve transparency in elections, but wasn’t specific.

What is clear is that there is a lot to be done. Michigan campaign reporting rules are riddled with loopholes.

In a report last year, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network concluded that loopholes in state campaign reporting rules resulted in $70 million in contributions in 2010 being “hidden in plain view.” According to nonpartisan network executive director Rich Robinson, less than half the $11 million spent in 2010 on campaigns for the Michigan Supreme Court was ever publicly reported, meaning we don’t know where the rest of the money came from.

Not surprisingly, these shenanigans have had an impact on public attitudes toward politicians, ballot proposals and campaign contributions. For example, a poll in March 2011 for Inside Michigan Politics by Marketing Resources Group found that 81 percent of Michigan voters favored full disclosure of all electioneering spending, versus 12 percent opposed. Other polls reach similar conclusions.

Fixing all this would require simple, if radical, changes:

Robinson basically urges amending the Michigan Campaign Finance Act to include “electioneering communications,” i.e. TV, cable, internet or telephonic communication that includes the name or image of a candidate for state or local office within 60 days of an election involving that candidate.

He wants the laws changed to require any committee or corporation that sponsors “electioneering communications” to disclose the donors whose funds the sponsor is using to pay for its communications.

Sadly, there are lots of political and special interest reasons why such a proposal is unlikely to get anywhere. Those interests do not include those of ordinary Michigan citizens, who for years have been bamboozled by political ads paid for by hidden sources.

But we can always hope. Not to mention lobbying our own legislators, to make our opinions known.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.