GOP appears to kill secretary of state bill, other ‘power grab’ measures still alive

Michigan Capitol | Michael Gerstein

The Republican Lame Duck bill designed to remove power from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, which generated harsh criticism as a “power grab” in media reports from across the nation, appears to be all but dead.

Jocelyn Benson

Senate Bill 1248, sponsored by term-limited state Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc), had passed the Michigan Senate last week. But it has stalled in the House during the last week of Lame Duck action, as Democrats have pounded the fact that Robertson has a history of campaign finance violations.

“This proposal would have effectively ended the enforcement of Michigan’s campaign finance law,” Benson tweeted on Tuesday night. “I am glad to see this outcome and look forward to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to take MI from worst to first in ethics & transparency.”

Democratic Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a former state lawmaker, held a fiery conference call on Monday, calling Robertson a “scofflaw,” and declaring he was the wrong person to spearhead such legislation. He also noted that the Michigan State Police is investigating possible embezzlement involving his campaign. Robertson did not respond to a call for comment.

GOP lawmakers told the Advance that support the campaign finance legislation began falling apart earlier today. The bill is not on the House Elections and Ethics Committee agenda for its final meeting of the year this morning. Barring any last-minute legislative sleight of hand, the measure will not come to the House floor.

Senate Bill 1254, sponsored by Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair Twp.), also looks dead, a House GOP source said. The legislation would have blocked those with a political affiliation from serving on a redistricting panel as written in Proposal 2 just passed by voters on Nov. 6. The ballot proposal calls for an independent redistricting commission made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents. 

The bill passed the Senate last week. Critics also argued that attempts to tinker with the ballot initiative would require a three-quarters majority under the Michigan Constitution, not a simple majority.

SB 1248 would have removed the administration and enforcement of campaign finance laws from the secretary of state’s Bureau of Elections and placed it in the hands of a newly created commission. That panel would have consisted of three Democrats and three Republicans.

Dave Robertson

The bill was part of a package that included Senate Bills 1249, 1250, 1251 and 1252. SB 1249, also sponsored by Robertson, remains on the House committee agenda for today.

Robertson has argued that SB 1248 is similar to that in 23 other states.

“Sen. Robertson’s goal was to set up an independent, bipartisan commission modeled after similar entities in 23 other states to have oversight over campaign finance rather than house that oversight in a single political office,” Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, has said.

Critics, like former longtime Bureau of Elections chief Chris Thomas, told the Advance that such a panel would routinely deadlock along partisan lines as they would be accountable to their party, not the public. Thomas served for more than three decades under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state and retired last year. He also tweeted that the bill consisted of “lame duck hijinks” that “hands campaign finance to politicians.”

According to government watchdog Craig Mauger, the proposed commission would be fairly unique among 50 states because the governor would choose the members based on a list of nominees submitted by the Democratic and Republican state parties. Mauger, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the proposal would put “hard-core party people” — those deeply involved in raising and donating campaign cash — in charge of oversight.

Chris Thomas

The commission would deal with sticky issues ranging from illegal contributions to failure to file campaign reports.

The legislation may have been swallowed up in the frenzy of activity in the state Capitol — the busiest Michigan lame duck session ever — as lawmakers have dozens of bills still on their plate even as they tentatively plan to adjourn for the year on Thursday (or Friday morning).

Term-limited Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), perhaps the Legislature’s most ardent supporter of campaign finance reform, said that the Bureau of Elections staff has avoided criticism for being partisan or unprofessional.

“If this [commission] is such a good idea, why was it not proposed weeks ago or a year ago?” Bieda said prior to the bill falling apart in the House. “People should care about this if they’re interested in fairness in the government or they’re worried about corruption in our election process.”

Steve Bieda

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer has decried the partisan divisiveness generated by lame duck bills which she called a “last-ditch effort to undermine the results of this election.” She has urged outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the most controversial measures.

Another bill prominently labeled as a “power grab” by Dems and national experts like Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe would limit the power of Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel. House Bill 6553, sponsored by Rep. Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker), would allow the Republican Legislature to intervene, without a judge’s approval, in court cases that are the purview of the AG — typically those with state constitutional implications or far-reaching public policy at stake.

After the bill was approved by the full House and a Senate committee, Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said in a statement that the measure had not been properly vetted.

Dana Nessel

“Those legislators pushing this law should be reminded that the people elect their attorneys general and their governors and such a proposal — should it pass — would have a dramatic and disastrous impact on the state of Michigan and its residents for years to come,” Rossman-McKinney said.

The bill is still pending and is expected to come up for final approval in the Senate before the end of the week.

Advance reporter Nick Manes contributed to this report.

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