Michigan lawmakers introduced bills in both the House and the Senate this week that would begin implementation of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in last year’s election.
Bill supporters and critics see this as a first step toward improving transparency laws in Michigan, after efforts were stalled in previous terms under Republican leadership.
Two-thirds of Michigan voters in the 2022 midterm election approved Proposal 1, a ballot measure that would require state legislative and executive officials, including the governor, to make their private finances available to the public.
Michigan is one of only two states already without such a law, creating an environment where corrupt state officials acting in their own best interest can go unnoticed unless revealed by journalists and activists.
Senate Bills 613-616 were introduced with bipartisan support Oct. 24. They would require state officials and candidates for office to file an annual report of all sources of income over $1,000, in addition to assets, property, stocks and liabilities exceeding $10,000. The bills would also require the disclosure of involvement with any organizations not affiliated with the state and of any planned future employment agreements.
The bills were sent to the Senate Oversight Committee the next day, where bill sponsors championed the legislation as a way to increase the public’s trust in the government.
“This is objectively a huge step forward compared to the system that does not hold our elected officials accountable,” Democratic Sen. Jeremy Moss said during the committee hearing. Moss is a bill sponsor and chair of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee.
“Is there more we can do? Absolutely,” he added. “I’ve been the first person to say that and will be the first person to champion more.”
The Senate bills go further than Prop 1 required by extending the financial disclosure mandate to candidates in order to “vet these potential conflicts,” Moss said.
Former GOP House Speaker Rick Johnson is one recent example of a public official using his political influence for financial gain. Johnson was sentenced to federal prison in September for accepting bribes from lobbyists when he served as chairman of the now-defunct Michigan medical marijuana licensing board. There’s also Lee Chatfield, another former GOP House speaker, who is the subject of an ongoing investigation by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office for allegedly engaging in “criminal enterprise,” according to the Detroit News.
The Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan as the state with the worst ethics and accountability laws in the country in 2015 because of its weak financial disclosure, lobbying and public information policies.
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testified in committee on Oct. 25 that, in order to bring Michigan up to par with other states in terms of transparency, more work is needed on the legislation to tighten regulations around spousal disclosure and penalties for noncompliance. The Senate bills only require a filer to report their spouse’s occupation and mandate a $1,000 fine if they are found to have lied about their finances.
“We’ve often said we want to go from worst to first. These bills on their own would not take us there,” Benson said. “However, we can do more. And I know and I believe there’s will on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to do more.”
House Democrats also brought forth their own financial disclosure bills this week. House Bills 5248-5258, introduced Oct. 25, differ from the Senate legislation in requiring filers and their spouses to provide more details about their income sources and business dealings. Filers would also be faced with a $10,000 penalty for lying, instead of the Senate’s proposed $1,000. A second group of House Democratic sponsors introduced a separate package of bills similar to the Senate version on Thursday.
The Legislature has until the end of the year to implement Prop 1, or it will open itself up to possible lawsuits. The second set of House bills was sent to the House Government Operations Committee, and there will be more discussion of the Senate bills in committee next week.
Any transparency legislation proposed after the Dec. 31 deadline that goes further than the Prop 1 requirements is voluntary. Sen. Sam Singh, Oversight Committee chair and a bill sponsor, said there was discussion about lobbying reform and “a commitment” from Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks to update Freedom of Information Act laws.
Because of gaps in Michigan’s ethics laws, Moss said, there is a litany of items that could be included in the bill package. He reiterated his continued commitment to increasing transparency in Michigan and encouraged critics to “shake off your pessimism from the last several years here.”
“I’m sorry that you’ve been burned from previous leaders who never let a day like this come to fruition and never let a transparency package move through the Legislature. I’ve been burned too,” Moss said. “But those days are over. Our Prop 1 legislation is not an end, but a long overdue beginning to finally implementing transparency laws.”