When Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson appeared at a June meeting of the state House Ethics and Oversight Committee and pushed for expansion of the financial disclosure for elected state officials that voters approved last year, I felt a modicum of hope in what can possibly come in the next couple of months as members of the legislature work to implement what was named Proposal 1 in the 2022 election.
Sixty six percent of those casting ballots in November of last year favored financial disclosure by state officials – members of the legislature, along with the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general – and at the same time approved a change in term limits for state lawmakers which was part of the same ballot issue. But the disclosure part of the ballot proposal was really a negotiated settlement between members of the legislature and a bipartisan group that was prepared to run an initiative petition ballot campaign that contained a more far reaching set of disclosure rules than what voters were presented.
Yes, the financial disclosure portion of the change to the Constitution finally addresses an issue that only Michigan and one other state (Idaho) have failed to regulate in past years. There were any number of attempts – bipartisan no less – in past legislative sessions to provide for transparency in Lansing but Republican legislative leaders who did not support the concept basically stonewalled the effort. In a recent session, one bill – albeit flawed – did pass in the House – but was buried over in the Senate, never to see the light of day.
So last spring along came a bipartisan group comprising the mayor of Detroit, a former official from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a former legislative leader and members of organized labor. Their initiative petition would have put before voters a simple proposal that would have made state officials follow the same financial disclosure rules as members of Congress. Last spring, as an alternative to having to get tens of thousands of petition signatures to make the ballot, the group negotiated with legislative leaders to place the financial disclosure issue on the ballot. In the process, what started out as a solid proposal got watered down substantially.
The rules governing financial disclosure for members of Congress require office holders, as well as candidates for office, spouses and dependent children, to “disclose certain information concerning the income, assets, liabilities and other information.”
The negotiated disclosure requirement that made the Michigan ballot last year did not include disclosure by candidates and family members (spouse/dependent children). Further, the change to the Michigan Constitution only requires state officials to disclose sources of income, not the amounts of income. And while the approved constitutional change includes reporting gifts involving lobbyists, the congressional rules call for reporting any gifts from anyone.
When SOS Benson appeared before the House committee in late June, she called for any implementation legislation to also include candidates for office and she suggested that certain members of the judicial branch also be included. Certainly that would be a improvement of what was proposed to voters, but it falls short of what we expect of members of Congress, which was the original model for transparency in Michigan.
I reached out to state Senator Jeremy Moss (D-7) whose sprawling district includes Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills. He chairs the Senate Election and Ethics Committee that will be grappling with writing legislation in that chamber by the end of 2023 to implement what voters approved last year. The committee of eight members includes Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-8) who represents Birmingham and Ruth Johnson (D-24) from Groveland Township in north Oakland who was previously the Secretary of State.
Moss tells me that the implementation legislation is the topic of “discussion right now.” While conceding that Michigan is “late to the game” when it comes to transparency and disclosure legislation, he said lawmakers in the Senate and the House are reviewing what legislatures have enacted in other states.
While personally “favoring transparency,” Moss notes that expanding the implementation legislation beyond what was called for in the state ballot proposal has both supporters and detractors in the state legislature. The key, he explained, to developing implementation legislation by the end of this year will be striking a balance when it comes to including candidates and family members in any disclosure requirements, an approach I can certainly understand.
Efforts in the late 1970s in Michigan, following the Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon administration, to develop transparency and disclosure rules for elected officials eventually failed because no agreement in Lansing could be hammered out, especially with an over-reaching attempt to extend the requirements to the local level for both elected and appointed officials, which helped kill the overall effort. But lawmakers now have no choice – the amendment to the Constitution requires by the end of this December that a set of rules are on the books for the first disclosure filing next April.
On the plus side, Moss said that whatever gets finalized by the close of this year will not be the end of efforts to establish disclosure requirements. He views financial disclosure by lawmakers and administration members to be an “ever rolling piece of policy” as part of a “continued process to strengthen” what was passed by voters.
While I am a big fan of Moss and what he has accomplished when in the House and now the Senate, I don't share his confidence that lawmakers will have the political/moral appetite to draw up implementation legislation that goes beyond the bare minimum requirements of the ballot proposal from 2022. The legislature certainly has not shown an inclination in past years to impose on themselves a comprehensive set of rules for financial disclosure, readily accessible by citizens and the media, which is why this issue had to be taken to the voters last year. As to the thought that whatever is hammered out in the next couple of months could evolve into something stronger in future legislatures – lots of luck with that.
All the more reason that SOS Benson and other officials part of the original bipartisan group behind the disclosure effort must keep the pressure on to develop the most all-inclusive disclosure game plan. Now.
NOVEMBER ELECTION FOOTNOTE: While we had been preparing questions for a Voter Guide in our October issue as a reader service for the city commission elections in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, at the filing deadline for candidates we learned that only enough candidates filed to fill the posts on the ballot, so the only contested election will be the library board in Birmingham. Candidates in that race were emailed questionnaires, the answers to which will appear in our next monthly issue. We will also be offering our endorsements in that contest, along with our editorial opinion on the senior citizen millage request and the cannabis dispensary issue in Birmingham, along with the millage request by the Bloomfield Hills Schools.