Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

March 18, 2012

George Weeks: More shadow than sunshine

"If the broad light of day could be let in upon men's actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects."

-- Justice Louis D. Brandeis

During last week's Sunshine Week, assorted newspaper commentaries and politicians trumpeted support of greater transparency.

But, sadly, there's more shadow than sunshine these days in Michigan in the wake of the annual initiative of the American Society of News Editors to encourage dialogue about the value of open government and laws guaranteeing public access to information.

We're in an era of there being no fingerprints too often on political spending.

Rich Robinson, aggressive top dog of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network, cited Justice Brandeis last week at the outset of his online Dome Magazine article.

"Without a doubt, in the 1970s, Michigan was a leader among the states in making government transparency a reality," Robinson wrote. "Thirty-some years later, these reforms need to be rejuvenated."

He said that this week's analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and others "shows that Michigan's standards of transparency are now among the worst in the nation."

That's a startling assessment from experts on such matters.

"The period since 2000 has been the era of 'issue' advertising in state political campaigns," Robinson said. "When the political parties, or any other interest group, buy advertising that tells you about a candidate's suitability for office but doesn't explicitly tell you how to vote, you're seeing an issue ad. At least, that's what the Department of State wants you to believe.

"That means the spending doesn't have to be reported. Nor do the donors who gave the money to the sponsor named on the disclaimer. Since 2000, $70 million worth of the most important ads in Michigan politics were not disclosed in the state campaign finance reporting system. In 2010, alone, $23 million worth of campaign ads were unreported."

Robinson said he knows this to be true because he collected records of the advertising from the public files of state television broadcasters and cable systems. He prowls the northland and elsewhere for such records.

Robinson said the "Department of State's interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act has it that a political advertisement is not a campaign expenditure unless it contains the language of express advocacy even though the words, 'express advocacy' are not found in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, nor is the concept."

While Robinson has been critical of Department of State actions, or inactions, over the years, current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson came on strong for campaign spending disclosure in an interview published in a Detroit Free Press Sunshine spread last week.

Citing a commitment to the cause, she said: "One of the reasons I ran, and took a very significant pay cut, "¦is because I think I might be able to get this done. I feel like it's my time.

"You look at the money that's being spent, you can't really tell what's going on," Johnson said. "Both sides do it, and that's why they haven't gotten cleaned up.

"There's a vulnerability that the public ultimately will not know who's getting money from whom on how much, and isn't reported with consistent timeliness." Johnson said.

"It's a passion of mine" to deal with the issue, she added.

Cheers to Johnson for her stated commitment to the issue, and to Robinson for his many years of leadership on it.

May he succeed in ensuring that her passion results in action.

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