A state House panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that would bring about more sunshine in Michigan’s notoriously secretive state government.
The bipartisan eight-bill package would require lawmakers and other public officials to disclose pertinent financial investments and potential conflicts of interest, as the Advance has previously reported.
State Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), a bill sponsor, told members of the House Elections and Ethics Committee that the goal of these eight bills is to create a system for reporting financial information for elected officials to increase citizens’ trust.
“It’s an incredibly important change given how poorly we monitor potential conflicts of interest and we’ve got to move past self-policing because there’s a huge breakdown of voter trust on this issue so we absolutely have to restore voter confidence in local officials and this is going to be a huge part of doing this,” LaGrand said.
The bills set requirements for state representatives and prospective candidates, senators and prospective candidates, university board members, state board of education members and elected officials in the judicial and executive branches.
The proposed bills would require elected officials to disclose:
- Any source of income in the pertaining year exceeding $5,000 earned by the person or by immediate family members.
- A breakdown of any stocks, bonds and any other forms of securities held by the person or their immediate family that have a fair market value of $50,000 or more.
- A description of any interests or specified assets if the person or immediate family members have an interest in the asset of $10,000 or more.
- They would be required to provide information on past employment, lobbying and properties outside of primary residence that are valued at $50,000 or more.
However, there will be no criminal penalty for not complying with the proposed laws.
“The real penalty for not complying with this is like the real penalty for not complying with campaign finance law — which is you’re going to get a lot of nasty press coverage,” LaGrand said.
House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Julie Calley (R-Portland) said in a statement she hopes to “boost people’s confidence by increasing transparency.
“The current lack of disclosure fosters mistrust in government,” she continued. “This is a step we must take in order to assure the residents of Michigan that we’re focused on their best interests and not our own.”
LaGrand also presented clarifications and amendments to the bills, including:
- Children do not need to be named in the report of immediate family unless they have an income of over $5,000; for example, a high school student with a lucrative summer job.
- When officeholders divulge information on held properties valued more than $50,000, they do not have to divulge the value of the property, just simply that it exists.
Current officeholders will not be subject to the changes unless they run for reelection. LaGrand said to enact the new rules to individuals who did not run for election with these expectations ‘would be a little bit like changing the speed limit on the highway, while you were driving’.
State Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.) was the sole member of the seven-member committee to vote against the bills. She said the legislation is unnecessary.
“We have a lot of really good people out there that it will deter from running for office,” Hornberger said after voting no on all eight bills.
There are lots of things that might discourage people from running, LaGrand countered, including having to raise funds for a campaign, having to talk to people and speaking to the press.
“The concern of deterring individuals from running for office doesn’t come close to the concern of trust in representatives,” he said. “There is a chasm of distrust right now between citizens and their representatives.”
Should the legislation eventually proceed to the state Senate, they’re likely to meet resistance there. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has previously expressed similar concerns to Hornberger.
Michigan is ranked worst in the country for its lack of transparency and its “money-driven politics,” according to the Center for Public Integrity. Accountability from state officeholders specifically in all three branches each received the worst ratings in the country.
LaGrand said the desire of Michigan political leaders to regain trust is so great that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other government officials have expressed interest in volunteering their tax returns, although that is not required in the proposed bills.
Whitmer also has taken steps within state departments to ease the process for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, although she has not opened her office to such requests.
“There’s a long argument that tax returns both show too much and too little potentially, but there are certainly things you can see better on tax returns then you can see in this package,” LaGrand said. “Tax returns can be problematic and distract from the central concern I have, which is making sure we are identifying personal and financial conflicts of interest.”
The goal is to get rid of blind trust and come up with a livable solution for politicians that voters are satisfied with, LaGrand said.
The bill package will now go to the state House Ways and Means Committee for approval, the next step before it’s taken up by the full chamber.