Every once in a great while, someone in the political class has an idea that makes so much sense you know it is doomed.
Such was the case with a recent suggestion by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who proposed requiring public disclosure of most third-party campaign spending. While that sounds like a common-sense regulation most of us would embrace — and many likely think is already the law — the state Legislature thought otherwise.
Just hours after Johnson made her proposed rule change public, a state senate committee considering a bill by state Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, that would require officeholders to file more frequent campaign finance reports and double limits on campaign contributions, took a recess.
During that recess — behind closed doors and without a public hearing or public notice of any kind — the committee amended the Meekhof bill to also stipulate that campaign contribution disclosures would be required only when ads explicitly urge a vote for or against a particular candidate.
The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of campaign ads in Michigan don’t specify a candidate or urge a vote for or against someone. They are instead so-called “issue ads” and thus would not be subject to disclosure.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act statute called for disclosure whenever there was clear inference of support for (or opposition to) a candidate.
But former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land — who is now seeking the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. Senate from Michigan — ruled in 2003 that disclosure was required only if a campaign ad used “express advocacy” and named names. Robinson said Land decreed that all other ads were “issue ads” and exempt from any requirement to reveal who paid for them.
Democracy in Michigan has paid a stiff price for Land’s ludicrous ruling. Campaign ads “masquerading as issue ads,” as Robinson put it in an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, now dominate state elections. The Campaign Finance Network says more than half of all spending in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2004 has been off the books — including 75 percent in the 2012 campaign. Half of all spending in the 2010 attorney general, secretary of state and gubernatorial campaigns was undisclosed, the group says.
That means voters don’t — and never will — know the identity of half the contributors to the state’s most important campaigns. While some argue that means candidates won’t know the identity of those donors either, who doesn’t believe a donor won’t let a candidate for the U.S. Senate, for instance, know who ponied up and how much. To claim otherwise is absurd.
So why all the secrecy, and why would lawmakers not only support that secrecy but make it law? Why don’t donors want their names revealed? What is being hidden from the rest of us? Future influence? Future favors?
This matters. Voters have a right to know who is bankrolling candidates and decide for themselves if there are agendas at work they may or may not agree with. This is public business, and the people have a right to know who is paying for all those TV ads that flood the airways in the final days of a campaign.
This is not a free speech issue. Identifying who is paying for an ad in no way prevents the person — or group — paying for that ad from expressing their opinion. If they don’t want others to know that’s how they stand, no one is forcing them to speak — or spend.
Robinson and others have called on Gov. Rick Snyder, who campaigned on a promise of transparency and ethical government, to veto the bill. That would be a huge step toward fixing our broken system and bringing some accountability to the state’s political business.
Michigan residents deserve better, and Gov. Snyder has a chance to come down on their side.