Wondering why Michigan consistently ranks near the bottom in government transparency?
Our lawmakers use our state’s well-weathered tactic of divide and dilute.
Michigan legislators and the Governor’s office are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requirements that allows the public to view public documents. We are one of two states that don’t require financial disclosures from lawmakers to prevent them from voting in their own interest. We also don’t restrict our politicians from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office.
It’s not like we don’t talk about it — in fact most of our lawmakers say they want to “make government accountable.”
In the last six years, the Michigan Legislature rejected more than 130 bills on improving transparency and ethics in government, according to The Detroit News.
So, yes, there’s talk. But access the taxpayers have to their legislators’ financial interests and their on-the-job communications lingers in the hen house, guarded by the foxes.
This week’s ethics bills — aimed at shoring up the financial disclosures, conflicts of interest and post-Legislature lobbying — is a case divide and dilute.
On their face, the bills tout new penalties for illegal gifts; lobbying disclosures; raising ethical standards for legislators and lobbyists, and penalties; financial disclosures and more. They were lauded by legislators and nonprofit advocacy groups as a reason to restore faith in government.
But as Bridge Michigan pointed out this week, these disclosures don’t actually add public access — diverting the information instead to a closed legislative subcommittee that will only release it if they determine someone has violated their rules. The committee would be selected by majority and minority leaders in both chambers, with members able to be removed “for any reason.”
Bridge reported that Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said this version appeased GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who told The Detroit News editorial board that he didn’t want financial disclosures “to get into your hands” while people are serving beca- use of the potential to give people a hard time.
And so Michigan goes with a packet of transparency and ethics laws that don’t include public access, when it is the public that actually holds government accountable.
What politicians hope the taxpayers forget is that accountability is non-partisan.
Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, or Green voters all contribute to lawmakers’ paychecks, and the pools of money they spend. All of us deserve to know — directly, as in dozens of states — our lawmakers’ employers, investments, real estate and creditors.
In the very recent past, we’ve had real estate manager lawmakers try to get legislation passed absolving landlords of bedbug liability; septic hauler lawmakers trying to add septage vehicles as exceptions to seasonal weight limits; and a logging/trucking lawmaker got a bill through prohibiting local government permitting for logging trucks.
We cannot allow Legislature to police their own ethics by way of a secret committee. We can’t let politicians continue to tell us that their financial interests don’t matter when they clearly do.
We cannot let them distract us from demanding real action by falling for partisan ploys and diluted “reforms.” Michigan government needs public oversight — nothing less.