Michigan House approves bills to require financial info from officials, limit lobbying

Posted at 7:57 AM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 07:57:51-04

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Elected state officials would be required to disclose personal financial information in annual reports and would be banned from becoming lobbyists until two years after leaving office under bills approved Wednesday in the House.

Michigan is among just two states where lawmakers do not have to file disclosure reports, which can reveal conflicts of interest.

The bipartisan legislation would mandate that legislators, the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and other state officers submit financial forms. But they would be kept secret until the officials exit office, drawing dissent from about three-dozen members of the Republican-led House in what otherwise is a government ethics and transparency package with broad support.

A committee of lawmakers in each chamber would have the confidential information and rule on potential ethics and conflict of interest violations. The State Ethics Board would make similar determinations for other officeholders.

The bills were sent to the Republican-controlled Senate. Another measure would require that money spent to lobby legislative and gubernatorial staff be disclosed. A proposed constitutional amendment would authorize each chamber to suspend the salary and expense allowance of a legislator who acts unethically or is excessively absent.

“The public’s confidence in their elected officials is at an all-time low. It does not help that the ethical standards for the state of Michigan’s officials are disgracefully low,” Rep. Ann Bollin, a Brighton Township Republican, said as the House debated the legislation. “These bills demand more from our elected officials and make sure a higher standard is enforced and met.”

But Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat, criticized the financial disclosure measures, saying they effectively ask voters to trust lawmaker-run committees that would be exempt from the Open Meetings Act.

“That has the potential to trigger blackmail dynamics. It certainly looks like a swamp. It doesn’t look like draining a swamp,” he said.

The bills would move Michigan “towards more darkness and obscurity,” said Rep. Bill Sowerby, a Democrat from Macomb County’s Clinton Township.

Rep. Andrew Fink, a Republican from Hillsdale County’s Adams Township, countered that the legislative ethics panels would have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and could recommend discipline only with bipartisan support.

“It gives the public the opportunity to check the committee’s work,” he said, apparently referencing how financial forms would eventually become public. “Compared to the most extreme financial disclosure plans advocated here and around the country, this plan does not treat becoming a public figure as an invitation to have one’s life pored over.”

Bills to curb the “revolving door” of officials becoming lobbyists and to require the disclosure of financial information have been proposed before. But Wednesday’s votes appeared to be the first time, at least in years, that they have cleared a chamber.

Their fate is uncertain in the Senate, where previous attempts to open the governor’s office and Legislature to public-records requests have died.

Abby Walls, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, said he “is supportive of the idea that government should be accountable to citizens. We look forward to working through the legislative process.”

Voters Not Politicians, which organized a 2018 ballot drive that put congressional and legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, said it worked with leaders in both parties to craft the bills. Executive director Nancy Wang called Michigan an “extreme outlier” among states and said the legislation would make elected officials accountable.

“Voters Not Politicians has supported stronger language when it comes to financial disclosure, but these bills represent a solid foundation that can be built upon over time, and the people expect swift passage in the Senate,” she said.