Bipartisan group pushes conflict of interest bills for Legislature

Michigan Capitol | Creative Commons

A bipartisan coalition of Michigan lawmakers wants to force those serving in the Legislature to disclose their potential conflicts of interest.

Rep. David LaGrand and announces financial disclosure legislation, Joined by (from left to right) Reps. Yousef Rabhi, Julie Calley, Graham Filler, Mark Huizenga; Sen. Jeremy Moss; Rep. Bill Sowerby; Sen. Winnie Brinks; and Rep. Steve Marino. | House Democrats photo

Michigan has garnered a reputation as among the worst in the country when it comes to transparency for legislators, with the Legislature and executive branch both excluded from public records requests and financial disclosure. Legislation touted on Thursday — although not yet online — aims to fix part of that, said state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids).

Michigan has been ranked last in the nation by the Center for Public Integrity for its transparency requirements for elected officeholders.

In an interview with the Advance on Wednesday, LaGrand said that the eight-bill, bipartisan package he’s spearheading would be a form of financial disclosure that focuses less on how much — or how little — money a legislator might have, but rather, where that money comes from.

“The principle reason to do this is because we want to identify potential conflicts of interest so the voters can actually know whether there is one, so we’re not self-policing on ethics,” LaGrand said. “Self-policing on ethics doesn’t work anymore in any context, as far as I’m concerned.”

Julie Calley

Joining LaGrand in sponsoring the legislation are Republican state Reps. Julie Calley of Portland, Mark Huizenga of Walker, Graham Filler of DeWitt and Steve Marino of Harrison Twp. Democrats sponsoring the bills are Reps. Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor, Bill Sowerby of Clinton Twp. and Tenisha Yancey of Harper Woods.

A sample form of the disclosure supplied to the Advance shows that legislators would have to disclose: sources of direct employment income over $5,000; direct ownership in business entities worth $10,000 or more and other non-employment income; various investment holdings of more than $10,000; any real estate properties with a value of $50,000 or more; paid corporate and nonprofit board positions; and any relatives who are registered lobbyists.

LaGrand stressed that the legislation’s point is not to zero in on rich people or poor people holding office, but instead to identify potential conflicts of interest. Existing Michigan law does little to preclude lawmakers from voting on issues that may impact them directly from a financial perspective.

“People who get elected think that they’re fair and honest,” LaGrand said. “But there’s very low levels of trust with elected officials. Anything we can do to improve the trust dynamic is good.”

Huizenga, one of the Republican co-sponsors, echoes LaGrand’s sentiment, saying in a statement that the bills help citizens know that elected officials are acting on their behalf.

Matt Huizenga

“The disclosures required under this bill package are reasonable and substantive. They are not burdensome on the candidate or official and provide easy to understand information to the public. Elected officials should have nothing to hide from the people they serve,” Huizenga said. “Enacting, this plan will give residents more confidence that their government is acting in their best interest.”

The proposed bills come as Michigan lawmakers have begun pushing for more transparency measures.

Legislation that would open the governor’s office to certain Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and creates the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) to administer requests for the Legislature has unanimously passed the state House, but has not been taken up by the upper chamber so far.

Previous conflict of interest disclosure legislation has been brought in past sessions as well, but failed to gain much traction.

How the conflict of interest legislation might fare in the broader Legislature is unclear. Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said that his boss is “willing to take a look and wants to see what the committee thinks as they vet it.”

Mike Shirkey

Chatfield has previously said that “we should be embarrassed that we ranked dead last in the arena of government transparency in our country.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) did not respond to a request for comment. But Shirkey has previously told reporters that he does not support financial disclosure requirements because he believes it would create challenges in finding people to run for the Legislature.

“With term limits and all the other things that don’t go with the job now, that makes it hard to even recruit good people in many cases; I don’t think this adds any value,” Shirkey has previously said.

Still, campaign finance watchdogs in the state say they’re hopeful that this legislation gets signed into law.

“I think people want to make sure that elected officeholders aren’t using the position they’ve been given by voters to represent them in Lansing to serve some interest other than the voters,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“This whole system exists to do the will of the people, not to do the will of a campaign donor, not to the will of a candidate who’s trying to get a few thousand more dollars in campaign contributions,” Mauger said. “The disclosure is a way in this time of unlimited money in our political system to give some public assurance that these people are doing the will of the people.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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