Commentary
11:10 am
Mon March 19, 2012

Failed Reform

I heard something last week that gave me a little bit of hope our state might be moving towards slightly more open and honest politics.  Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State, is leading a drive to amend the Michigan Constitution to require complete and immediate disclosure of corporate campaign contributions.

Doing that would make a lot of sense. Two years ago, a lot of people, including me, were dismayed when the United States Supreme Court ruled that no limits could be placed on campaign contributions made by either corporations or unions.

But in that case, which is usually referred to as the Citizens United decision, the justices also ruled that it was perfectly legal for a state to require full disclosure of who was giving what to whom.

Michigan doesn’t even do that. Rich Robinson is a vigilant and hard-working watchdog who runs the non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance network. He reports that it is now common for SuperPacs and so-called “issue” advertisers to heavily outspend both candidates’ campaigns in many races.

In some cases, depending on the type of organization doing the advertising, it is impossible to know who is backing whom, and even when disclosure is legally required, the public doesn’t know who gave what, sometimes until months after the election is over.

According to the Corporate Accountability Amendment’s website, the proposed amendment would require instant disclosure of corporate funded political communications and lobbying.

Corporations would also be required to identify exactly which individuals gave money for any ads. This is something long overdue. We as citizens should know exactly who is backing any candidate. After all, people who give money usually want something for it.

But when I talked to Jocelyn Benson this weekend, I was disillusioned. She told me her group had decided to postpone the effort to put this on the ballot for two years. She claimed this was because of the need to “get more people involved in the process.”

But the real reason, I strongly suspect, is that Benson realizes there is no way that without massive funds, her group can collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed by the July deadline.

Otherwise, putting it off two years makes little sense, especially since the chance of passing something like this would be much stronger in a presidential election year.

And when you look at the fine points of Benson’s so-called “Corporate Accountability” amendment, it is clear that it is fatally flawed. While it demands full disclosure from corporations, it does not do so of unions or wealthy individuals, some of whom, like Jon Stryker, have given lavishly to Democratic candidates and causes.

In other words, her amendment looks like little more than a transparently partisan Democratic party ploy. Republicans have charged this is little more than a device for Benson, the party’s nominee for secretary of state two years ago, to boost herself.

And it’s hard not to suspect that might be right. We need full disclosure from everyone and every group.

But we also probably need a non-partisan outfit like the Center for Michigan to take up this cause and get a non-partisan amendment on the ballot, as soon as they practically can.