Disappointment. That probably captures best my reaction to what took place in mid-May when state lawmakers voted to place on the November ballot a revised amendment to the Michigan Constitution to change our current term limitations, along with a requirement for financial disclosure for elected state leaders.
Just two months earlier I used this space to sing the praises of a bipartisan group that had written a voter-worthy proposed amendment. The group called Voters For Transparency & Term Limits included Democrat Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former Republican House Speaker Jase Bulger, Richard Studley, retired CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, as well as members of organized labor.
We all know that the two proposals were wrapped together in one ballot issue to help push through changes to term limits, which polling suggests are still popular in this state.
The original ballot proposal did not eliminate term limitations for House and Senate members, along with the offices of Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State. It offered a necessary revision to what voters had approved in November of 1992 – extending to 12 years in office for members of the House and Senate, to be served in either chamber or a combination of both. Proposal B from 1992 restricted House members to three two-year terms and members of the Senate to two four-year terms.
Those who have followed the machinations in Lansing over the past 30 years recognize that the term limitations – considered the strictest in the nation – did not allow sufficient time for lawmakers to master their jobs, let alone develop relationships across the aisle, as the saying goes, an important factor when attempting to get bipartisan agreement on legislation.
Equally important, the bi-partisan group pushing for a November vote on constitutional changes also included a provision to force elected state leaders to provide financial disclosure which has been completely lacking in Michigan and one other state.
The language on this second item was simple, as the petition said: “Require members of legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general to file annual public financial disclosure and transaction reports after 2023; require legislature to enact laws with disclosure rules at least as stringent as those required for members of Congress under federal law.”
But facing a July 11 deadline to submit 425,059 signatures on their petition to get the issue on the fall ballot, the bi-partisan group announced in mid-May that they would also be asking state lawmakers to simply place the proposal on the ballot. Understandable when one considers the steep climb the petitioners would face, especially in a year when petition labor, in particular, paid help, is scarce due to the volume of competing petitions being circulated for the November 2022 election.
The day after the group signaled that they would approach the legislature, House and Senate members – without any public discussion – voted to place the constitution amendment on the ballot, but only after severely watering down the financial disclosure portion of the proposal. Talk about backroom deals which fail to pass the smell test.
I am told members of the bi-partisan group agreed to the changes, as did the two-thirds of both chambers which was required to get this on the ballot, and caucus leaders in both parties issued marching orders. Just for the record, our local members of the House and the Senate supported the watered down amendment for the ballot, although a couple of lawmakers from other parts of Oakland County voted against it.
The logic that a watered down disclosure requirement is better than what we have – i.e. no requirements – what some lawmakers and editorial writers at other media outlets are using as a defense for this amendment, is a cop out. Period. This is a proposal hammered out by current GOP legislative leaders in the Senate who have for years held up any disclosure legislation because they simply don't support the concept. Over in the House, bills have been adopted but they were weak in terms of allowing public access to financial information about lawmakers, so I have to question the sincerity of the efforts in that chamber.
Here's what voters will decide in November as approved by lawmakers: “Require members of the legislature, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general to file annual public financial disclosure reports after 2023, reporting assets, liabilities, income, positions held, future employment agreements, gifts, travel reimbursements, and other payments. Require the legislature to implement but not limit or restrict the reporting requirements.” A considerable difference from what the bi-partisan group first proposed – disclosure “at least as stringent as those required for members of Congress under federal law.”
In Congress, members must report annually, and in some instances more frequently, all of the items that would be required in the newly proposed Michigan amendment to the Constitution but must also report certain information on spouses and dependent children.
If we are going to achieve total transparency, to avoid conflicts of interest and possible payoffs to lawmakers – then spousal and dependent children incomes and holdings must be part of the bargain. Also concerning is the loose term “assets” in the proposed November ballot issue. Does this include real estate holdings? Members of Congress are required to report all real estate holdings as well as sales and purchases – including those by spouses and dependent children.
Some reports have suggested that the requirement to match or exceed what is required from members of Congress was dropped because U.S. House and Senate members must also report on stock holdings and votes by state lawmakers don't influence the value of stocks. Not buying that argument either.
Bottom line: what lawmakers have agreed to put on the ballot leaves too much up to the whims of future state legislators who will write the rules for statements of economic interests so the public can view possible transgressions by those elected to state office.
The track record of the current and immediate past members of the Michigan House and Senate has not been very impressive when it comes requiring financial disclosure in Lansing. So why would we trust lawmakers to write the rules of the game now?
My research shows that about two dozen states now have financial disclosure requirements that approximate what members of Congress face. As a result, I am also not willing to accept the argument that too stringent of financial disclosure rules will discourage some from running for office. Put simply, if you don't like the rules of the game, then don't run for state office.
Will I be voting for this amendment come November? No, despite prior indications to those involved with the original proposal that our publication could be counted on for passage support.
The term limits problem needs to be addressed but let someone come back with a proposal to do just that. We have already lived with current term limits for three decades so waiting until another election year can’t do much more damage.
Then return with a separate, legitimate financial disclosure requirement that demands at least what members of Congress must disclose each year.
Next time around, backers also need to put true financial disclosure directly before the voters who will no doubt back tough requirements. Skip going to lawmakers who – time and again – have shown they can't be trusted to regulate themselves.