MICHIGAN—When it comes to how Michigan’s state government conducts its business, Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) thinks that Michiganders deserve a seat at the table—or at least a better view in the room. And this year, Democrats in the legislature plan to make it happen.
Last week, Moss and other members of the new Democratic majority in Michigan released a “to-do list” for improving transparency and public accountability in state government, including tweaking financial disclosure requirements and reforming the state’s open records laws.
“As with our other policy priorities that legislative Democrats have moved quickly to enact, we built a Wish List of important government accountability reforms,” Moss said. “We finally have the opportunity to implement them, and lawmakers are working closely to make that happen.”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Michigan ranks dead last when it comes to ethics, accountability, and transparency in government operations. And with Republicans no longer behind the wheel, Moss sees an opportunity to shed some more light on state government.
“While the interest in these reforms may not be new, the ability to actually achieve them certainly is, especially as abuses of power and ethical questions continue to arise related to previous Legislatures and administrations,” Moss said in a statement earlier this month.
Freedom of Information Act
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act provides everyone (except incarcerated felons) the ability to request information and documents from public bodies—including local governments—about all governmental operations. With limited exceptions, the law essentially guarantees the public access to public records of government at nearly all levels in Michigan.
Most states have open records laws. However, Michigan is one of only two states that do not allow FOIA requests to be sent to the executive and legislative branches of state government.
Moss said he wants to see that exemption removed because it places Michiganders “in the worst position in the nation to learn about and understand” state government decisions.
Previous attempts to expand the Freedom of Information Act to include the state legislature and the governor’s office have only stalled under decades of Republican leadership in Michigan. Moss said the new Democratic majority in the Senate now plans to push the changes into law.
In November, a significant majority of Michiganders (about 66%) voted in support of Proposal 1, which shifted term limits for state legislators, and also added new financial disclosure requirements that are designed to expose conflicts of interest among state government leaders.
Its passage added a new subsection to the state Constitution that requires elected officials to file financial disclosure reports—including details about all sources of income (and promised income) for state lawmakers, the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general.
State lawmakers are now charged with crafting legislation to implement the proposal, and Moss said the state Senate is actively working with the House to enact the reforms. For now, Michigan is one of only two states without a financial disclosure law—but that will soon change, he said.
Added Rep. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn): “Michiganders have every right to know potential conflicts of interest among their representatives so they can assess their actions and their votes accordingly. It is time to shine a light on this critical component of accountability that for years has been shrouded in mystery in Lansing.”
Campaign Finance and Election Reform
Moss also said he has his sights set on changing the way political campaigns are funded in Michigan—namely by shedding more light on so-called “dark money,” or contributions made to political campaigns or candidates from undisclosed donors.
The idea: Enact new legislation that essentially pulls back the curtain, and allows Michiganders to more closely examine how elected officials in the state may be operating nonprofit fundraising vehicles as a tool for political gain.
As a former member of the House Elections and Ethics committee, Moss has developed a reputation for pushing back against Republican-led efforts to increase political giving. He said Republicans have only accelerated the problem by blurring the division between candidate committee fundraising and less-identifiable cash that rolls into campaigns from Super PACs.
Moss said that recent scandals—like recent allegations of potential embezzlement, bribery and campaign finance violations against former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield—have only exacerbated the need for campaign finance and election reform in Michigan’s government.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel said they will work with Moss to write the legislation, and push it to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk as soon as possible.
“Our residents have to be able to trust their elected officials will work for them, not the well-moneyed interests bankrolling them from the shadows,” Nessel said in a statement. “Michigan is in desperate need of common-sense campaign finance laws to ensure that information regarding the donors is being disclosed to voters.”
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