MICHIGAN — It looks bleak: Michigan gets an “F” on a “corruption risk report card” released this week by the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. The data for the national survey was collected by veteran reporters in every state including, here in Michigan, Chris Andrews, who was the Lansing State Journal’s political editor for 21 years. The report evaluates risk factors for political corruptibility, touching on many of the murky matters with which political reporters regularly wrangle. (Disclosure: The Integrity Investigation was funded in part by the Omidyar Network, which is also a funder of the Swing States Project.)
For example, the report gives Michigan a failing grade in “lobbying disclosure”, a “D” in “public access to information”, and an “F” in “political financing” (campaign finance laws and public’s access to related records). Among the reasons given for Michigan’s overall ranking of 43rd out of 50 states, per Andrews:
[Michigan] has major flaws in tracking money spent to elect officials and shape policy. The set of laws regulating campaign spending, lobbyist activity, and financial disclosure guarantee essentially says to the public: Mind your own business.
Surprised? “Pure Michigan”—as the state’s slogan has it— is not known, as Andrews notes, for government scandal. Indeed, he writes, even as Michigan’s campaign finance system is pocked with holes, the state still gets many things right. On the bright side:
[The state government] is not plagued by pay-to-play allegations in procurement, or by nepotism or cronyism in the civil service system. Its Freedom of Information Act usually, if not always, works to give journalists and others the information they request at a reasonable cost.
Corruption in Wayne County and Detroit—which the Detroit Free Press’s Pulitzer-winning investigative team continues to unravel—is not mirrored in Lansing, the report adds. And Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent push for transparency gives citizens greater online access to information about state spending than ever before.
But there is no state law requiring elected officials to disclose their sources of income, assets, investments, and such. And Michigan is one of three states where legislators police themselves on conflicts of interest. Special interests and the deep-pocketed can court lawmakers and influence legislation in the dark—and they do just that.
You might have expected Michigan journalists to be among the first to nod in exasperated recognition at the investigation’s findings, and some reporters did treat the release as news. A Monday article in The Detroit News, for example, usefully sets the report in the context of failed efforts to amp up Michigan’s transparency laws, as well as a current reform push by House Democrats. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t offer much sense of what those latest reform measures might do, and it doesn’t make clear how murky campaign finance standards impede journalists in their “watchdog” capacity—a vantage point that might have been especially valuable coming from reporter Chad Livengood, who is part of the paper’s Lansing bureau.
And on Tuesday, popular Michigan Radio commentator Jack Lessenberry used the news of the report to home in on the state’s loophole-ridden campaign finance reporting system:
I have talked before about our bad joke of an abysmal system for reporting campaign finance spending, in which you can pretty much get around any disclosure requirements by producing “issue oriented ads.”
Thanks to that, over the last decade, nearly $70 million worth of campaign ads for state office didn’t have to be disclosed under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.
(That stat, by the way, comes from the tireless Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who outlined some of the ways the state’s weak laws create obstacles for journalists in a recent column for Dome magazine.)
Lessenberry also quoted the governor’s head of communications, who apparently said in response to the report that, “right now, legislators had ‘other things on their plate,’ than improving disclosure standards.” (Lessenberry missed the chance, though, to note that the governor himself championed greater transparency in his State of the State address a couple months ago.)