Michigan Campaign Finance Reforms, So Close and Yet?

Oct 13, 2011

They came so close and I was really hopeful for a while. But in the end, they just weren’t good enough.

I hope you were disappointed too. Wait a minute -- did you think I was talking about the Detroit Tigers?

I don’t know whatever gave you that idea. What I‘m talking about are the campaign finance reforms unveiled yesterday by Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

I have been complaining for a long time about our campaign finance laws. It’s bad enough that it often costs several times an official’s salary to run for office.

That means, whatever they say, that those who get elected are beholden in some fashion to special interests. There’s little that we can do about that, at least without drastic change at the federal level.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that corporations and labor unions could essentially give unlimited amounts for so-called “independent political broadcasts” to try and influence elections.

But the nation’s highest court also said states could require campaigns and candidates to reveal where the money is coming from. Michigan doesn’t do that.

So when our secretary of state announced that, “our campaign finance laws need more teeth,” and said she’d propose new, tougher rules, that’s where I thought she was going.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. She and a group of her fellow Republicans in the legislature did announce a package of bills that does include new penalties for any candidates who violate what laws we have about reporting campaign finance spending.

In fact, candidates who end their campaigns owing at least twenty thousand dollars and fail to file a post-election campaign finance report would be guilty of a felony.

And any committee trying to get an issue on a statewide ballot would be required to file quarterly fundraising and spending reports if they raised and spent as little as five hundred dollars.

But while the secretary of state has said she believes we “need more transparency” when it comes to the issue-oriented ads, her proposed reforms do nothing to achieve that.

How big a problem is this? According to the non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, it amount to twenty-three million dollars in last year’s statewide elections. Twenty-three million spent to air broadcast ads attacking candidates with no disclosure of where the money came from.

In fact, in the secretary of state’s own race, the Michigan Republican Party spent almost one point four million dollars for TV advertising on Ruth Johnson’s behalf.

They did not disclose where that money came from, but it was three times what the Democrats spent, and may have made a difference in what was a fairly close race.

Last month, Rich Robinson, executive director of the campaign finance network, said “there is an obvious irony in having the elected executive responsible for campaign finance disclosure winning election in a campaign that was mostly undisclosed.”

And while it may have been predictable, it is even more sadly ironic when that official then fails to call for more transparency.

But we share the blame too, for not demanding change. If we are in fact doomed to having a government money can buy, we at least ought to be able to see who signs the checks.