Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

November 6, 2012

Phil Power: Center helps bridge info gap

This election is unlike any in my memory — and since I was born in 1938, that goes back a long way.

One way in which it seems unique is the number of big-spending contests. In addition to candidates for all 110 seats in the state House of Representatives, three justices of the state Supreme Court and various local issues, there are six proposals on the statewide ballot. Five of these seek to amend the state constitution; the other is a referendum on the emergency manager law passed last year by the Legislature.

So far, the committees supporting or opposing the ballot proposals have spent at least $141 million, according to the Detroit Free Press. That's the largest amount raised and spent on ballot proposals in Michigan history, according to the respected and non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, or MCFN.

There are also six major party candidates for three open seats on the Supreme Court — plus a few minor candidates. According to Rich Robinson, MCFN's executive director, the two major political parties have set aside at least $10 million for those races, about three times what the candidates have raised themselves.

But Robinson has documented another $10 million in unreported spending for TV advertising on the Supreme Court races, together with an undetermined amount for radio and direct mail.

Because Michigan's campaign disclosure laws are shamefully weak, much of this torrent of spending — especially for the Supreme Court — has come from anonymous donors. Which means we don't know, and can't find out, what interests are spending beaucoup bucks in an attempt to game the judicial system.

But when it comes to Proposal 6, we do know. Manuel "Matty" Moroun, billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, and his family have spent record amounts trying to safeguard their monopoly.

Matty, Nora and Matthew Moroun have kicked in some $33 million for the committee supporting Proposal 6, which would require a public vote in order to build an international bridge. Overall, the Moroun family has raised or spent millions more in an attempt to pass Proposal 5 as well, according to Bridge Magazine, a publication of The Center for Michigan.

The center, by the way, is a "think-and-do-tank" I founded back in 2006 to try to bring a sense of moderate, nonpartisan rationality to Michigan politics. An important part of the center's work is to help fill the information vacuum that has opened up with the hobbling of the newspapers and broadcast media that used to report in detail what was going on in Lansing and with state policy.

All in all, Bridge has run ten in-depth stories on the six ballot proposals; they can be found at http://bridgemi.com/ballot-mania-page/. They've also appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, Mlive and the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Deadline Detroit recently gave Bridge a public service award for "Ballot Mania," a guide to the proposals that is "the clearest, most useful resource of its type."

The Michigan Truth Squad is another program from The Center for Michigan. It's designed to cut through the claims --true, false, misleading, whatever — in political ads, whether on TV, radio or in mailers. A team of experienced (and eagle-eyed) reporters examines and fact checks the ads and blows the whistle, calling "foul," "no foul," or "flagrant foul." While there are other fact-checking services in Michigan, the Truth Squad has been by far the most active, posting from July 1 through Nov. 5 a total of 68 posts, a slight majority on the various ballot proposals. Truth Squad posts can be found at http://michigantruthsquad.com/past-call/

Traverse City Record-Eagle executive editor Mike Tyree says, "Bridge election coverage is very helpful in augmenting our coverage, especially on the ballot proposals. There really is no one out there who is breaking down those misleading false ads.

"It's a nice tonic for democracy."

Once citizens have taken a deep breath and reflected on the abuses of our democratic system so sadly on display during this election, I hope and suspect there will be loud calls for reform.

In the meantime, our work at Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Truth Squad has been designed to help ordinary citizens exercise their political rights in a knowing and informed way.

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.

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