For over 40 years I have watched a number of efforts in the Michigan legislature to require transparency for state lawmakers, so I don't hold out a great deal of hope for the bills introduced in late May of this year that would require financial disclosure for state House and Senate members, along with members of the administration, the state judiciary, university governing boards and the state board of education.
I hope I am wrong but the eight-bill package's key sponsor – Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) – promoted essentially the same proposals in the last session during which there was no movement on the legislation. This year's reiteration would provide what seems as reasonable financial disclosure for state-level officials.
Ironically, the early efforts to provide for transparency either predate a number of lawmakers who now populate Michigan's capitol or took place when they were too young to follow, let alone understand, government.
The push for government reform harkens all the way back to the 1960's, when the general population's trust in government began to seriously deteriorate due to lack of federal government transparency and honesty exhibited during the Vietnam War, accentuated further by the Watergate controversy during the Nixon administration. So that was a period marked by the push for campaign finance reform to bring private money in politics under control (a battle still underway), calls for increased transparency through financial disclosure and government reform to protect civil liberties that were under serious threat at the time. From a sociological standpoint, that was the start of the serious decline of trust in government leaders – at all levels – a trend that seems to have continued to the present day.
I can remember advocating in editorial opinion pages for financial disclosure policy in the late 70's and early 80's, only to be rebuffed by those in office, many of whom I knew on a personal basis then.
Rep. LaGrand's package of bills mandate financial disclosure to those holding, and those seeking as candidates, the offices of senator, representative, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and members of the state judiciary, starting with the state supreme court and reaching down to the circuit court level, along with the state board of education and university boards. Disclosure information would also be required for immediate family members.
The proposed requirements are certainly not that onerous, despite what some would have you believe. The holders of office outlined above and candidates seeking these posts would have to disclose with the state any income sources that generate more than $5,000 in a year; property beyond the primary residence valued at over $50,000; and stocks worth $10,00 or more in value. At no point do the disclosure requirements force divulging of total annual income, which seems like a reasonable approach.
Although separate legislation has just been introduced, again, to regulate voting in the legislature when conflicts of interest are likely, as presently structured, House guidelines allow a member to abstain from a vote when there is a conflict but do not require a representative to refrain from voting. In the Senate, rules prohibit a member from voting when there is a direct personal interest and potential financial gain. But without disclosure, there is no system or means of monitoring whether members are possibly self-enriching when voting on issues.
A study released in 2018 by the Center for Public integrity – looking at 50,000 pages of legislative records over a several-year period – showed a half dozen instances when Michigan lawmakers voted for bills that well could have proven of benefit to themselves or family members.
As noted in this space on more than one occasion, Michigan has one of the worst reputations – in multiple comparative studies – relative to transparency in government at the state level. As far as disclosure of personal financial information, Michigan is one of only two states without such regulations – the other being Idaho, which has a part-time legislature. That pretty much says it all in terms of where we should be headed on government transparency.
I took time to touch base with local state Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills), a co-sponsor of the disclosure package, to get her take on LaGrand's legislative proposals and the likelihood that they would actually move in this session. From her vantage point, there is an “appetite on both sides of the aisle in the House” for increased transparency.
Manoogian said she has a “suspicion” that there is some support in the Senate – but many think the road in the Senate could be tougher to navigate, not surprising since Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has been quoted on a number of occasions as saying disclosure regulations are not needed, would discourage people from seeking office, and would only be of value to members of the media that seek more information to mine.
In terms of timing, Manoogian said the start of the new session has been dominated by auto insurance reform and now budget negotiations, but she sees possible movement this fall or winter on the financial reform package which she labels a “good first step” while conceding, “there is much more we can do.”
Although I continue to grapple with the issue, I happen to think if disclosure regulations can be set into law at the state level, then it makes sense to consider whether something similar should be enacted for the local level – something effective but not completely invasive and off-putting for those who want to be involved locally.
I understand the concern about discouraging residents from being involved at the local level – many times unpaid – but I will leave you with one personal experience that helps illustrate my concerns at the local level, where the vast majority of officials exhibit and demonstrate their integrity on a regular basis.
Decades ago when the federal government halted the continued development of M-275 into the resource-rich west Oakland lakes area for environmental reasons, there was a concerted effort by local officials and the office of then-county executive Dan Murphy to push for extension of the highway through that geographical area. Murphy had one of his deputy executives spearhead the county's involvement.
Coincidentally, around the same time, I thought it made sense to assign a couple of reporters to follow the path of the proposed highway extension and record land ownership along the route, an exercise that might help us understand the motivation of those outside of government who were part of a growing legion pushing for the highway extension. It was a tedious, challenging chore, particularly if companies and partnerships owned parcels of land, forcing us to take our search a bit deeper.
When the assignment was completed, we discovered that the deputy county executive heading up the county push for the highway extension was part of a partnership that owned a parcel of land in the path of the possible extension.
Need I say more about the need for increased transparency?