Michigan Dems want to shine a ‘BRITE’ light on elected officials’ finances

Rep. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn) unveils transparency legislation in Lansing on Wednesday. (Michigan Advance/Anna Liz Nichols)

By Michigan Advance

March 15, 2024


MICHIGAN—Sunshine Week, which acknowledges the importance of transparency in government, is underway in Michigan. And a group of lawmakers who are exempt from public records requests discussed their intention Wednesday to introduce legislation to improve accountability in the finances of elected officials.

These bills will be called the Bringing Reforms in Integrity, Transparency and Ethics (BRITE) Act.

In a news conference in Lansing Wednesday, several Democratic House members voiced their support for expanding financial disclosures elected officials have to make, as well as monitoring ‘dark money’ groups and reporting accepted gifts. They also were joined by Quentin Turner, executive director of Common Cause.

“Now’s the time to think about a brighter future for Michigan,” state Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) said. “A brighter future where the people hold the most power in our government, not dark money special interest groups. A brighter future where lawmakers call our constituents to ask how they should vote on legislation, instead of wealthy and well-connected individuals. This is a future where people can trust that their state government is making the right decisions for the right reasons. This brighter future is not just an aspiration. It starts here today.”

The group said the legislation, among other things, will require nonprofits connected with state officials and candidate committees to register with the Secretary of State at the start of 2026.

Current laws make it nearly impossible to hold bad actors who abuse Michigan’s laws for fundraising and campaign financing, Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) said. By utilizing a nonprofit, elected officials can avoid having to disclose donor dollars.

“This is an important first step in shining a bright light on fundraising, restoring trust in our democracy and putting the public back in the forefront of government policy,” Brixie said.

Several revelations and accusations made against elected officials in Michigan have chipped away at trust in state government in Michigan over the last year.

Rick Johnson, a former House speaker and chair of the state’s marijuana licensing agency, was sentenced in September to prison time for accepting bribes.

Another former House speaker, Lee Chatfield, is currently being investigated by the state attorney general for possible illegal financial activity and accusations of sexual assault by his sister-in-law. Two of his former staffers have already been charged with embezzlement and other felonies for suspected criminal activity for financial gain.

Michigan lawmakers have been tackling a few long-awaited changes to government transparency in the past few months. At the end of 2023, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approved a series of bills to require annual financial disclosures from state officials, as well as candidates for office that were required under Proposal 1, which voters passed in 2022.

Proposal 1 was just the first step, Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) said. And every lawmaker is accountable for addressing other elements of governmental integrity not covered in the initial legislation to implement Proposal 1.

“I can attest that in my district in northern Michigan, I am getting a lot of direct feedback from my constituents saying, ‘We want you to take it further. There’s more to be done,’” Coffia said. “We all are hearing from our constituents. ‘Great, good first step, you’ve got a lot more work to do’.”

The bills in the BRITE package aim to ensure citizens in Michigan know that decisions made by their representatives are in the public’s interest and not because special interest groups funded trips or other gifts to buy an official’s support, Coffia said.

Part of the legislation would expand requirements of disclosure for gifts such as tickets for concerts and sporting events from lobbying groups to public officials to gifts from non-lobbying groups. Legislative staff would also be subjected to these disclosures.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who has asked the Legislature in the past to work on transparency legislation to allow her office and other stakeholders to hold bad actors accountable, expressed her support for the bills in a news release Wednesday from Michigan House Democrats.

“This legislative package will strengthen our ethics and transparency laws and make government more accountable to the people we represent,” Benson said. “I’m grateful for the leadership of the bill sponsors and look forward to strengthening our system so that Michigan is known as a place where the practices of governing, legislating and leading are done with integrity by all involved, in accordance with the will of the voters.”

The group of legislators also included something Benson has called for in the past, an end “to the revolving door” legislators take from government straight into lobbying. The legislation would require a one year waiting period in between when a legislator’s term ends and when they’re allowed to serve as a lobbyist.

On Wednesday morning, the Senate Oversight Committee approved legislation to subject the Legislature and governor to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. At the moment, Michigan is one of the only states that exempts the governor’s office and legislature from FOIA, which the Center for Public Integrity notes in Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation ranking for government integrity.

READ MORE: Michigan Senate makes progress on transparency reforms for elected officials

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 




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