We are witnessing a unique moment in Michigan’s history: two former state House speakers are under investigation for corruption at the same time, not to mention the pending investigations of a former state Senate majority leader, a Lansing lobbyist, and several local government officials.
As the Michigan Legislature prepares to resume its session in a few weeks, they will have a crucial opportunity to tackle one of the state’s most pervasive problems: our lack of government transparency and ethics rules.
Michigan is ranked 48th in the country for having some of the most inadequate laws related to government ethics, transparency, and accountability. Over the past few years, Michigan residents have sadly become used to reading headlines about lobbyists pleading guilty in bribery schemes or former lawmakers caught up in dark money scandals, and as a result, they are losing trust in their government.
This is inexcusable and must be addressed. It’s past time for the legislature to restore the public’s faith in government by enacting comprehensive reforms.
In 2017, thousands of volunteers came together to form our grassroots nonpartisan pro-democracy organization, Voters Not Politicians, to advocate for a more transparent, integrity-focused, and functioning democracy. In doing so, our volunteers built the momentum needed in 2018 to galvanize millions of Michiganians to vote in favor of amending the Michigan Constitution to reform our redistricting process. In 2022, voters went on to strongly support term limit reform and financial disclosures for elected officials by passing Proposal 1.
Now it’s time to build on those efforts and continue to make our democracy more open and transparent so voters have confidence in their elected representatives. Our state legislature can do this right now by taking steps to reduce corruption and improve the public’s trust in government.
The first step is to make critically important changes to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), bringing this law in line with the rest of the country. Established in 1977, the current FOIA exempts the parts of state government with the most power to change state law and spend public resources, limiting voters’ right to know how decisions are made, how policy is formulated, who influences policy discussions and decision making, and how state resources are managed. Michigan’s FOIA laws must be expanded to include the governor’s office and the legislature.
Adding an independent state ombudsman’s office, which reports to a FOIA oversight commission, will reduce roadblocks, ensure proper implementation and adherence, and eliminate backlogs through prompt mediation and thorough investigation.
Second, we must ensure that all legislative and executive financial ties are reported to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are exposed. Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 22-1, requiring state legislators and executive officeholders to disclose their personal finances including assets, sources of income, and other positions held.
The amendment, however, is just a starting point. Expanding the requirements to candidates, members of the Board of Education, high-level judiciary and the governance boards of UM, MSU and WSU, plus immediate families of these officeholders, will ensure that lawmakers cannot use their office to enrich themselves, their families, or non-family members they’re connected to.
If we combine financial disclosure with strong rules around conflicts of interest, lawmakers will be more accountable to their voters, preventing recurrences of the corruption and sweetheart deals we’ve seen in recent legislatures. Michigan’s elected officials should be held to standards at least as high as those that apply to members of Congress.
Third, we must ban lobbyist gifts and expand the list of lobby-able officials to include candidates and policymaking staff in the legislative and executive branches.
Michigan voters have gone to the ballot in recent years to end the legislature’s partisan gerrymandering and add basic financial disclosure requirements to our state constitution. Now it’s time for the legislature to clean their own house and deliver on the voters’ mandate for stronger and more stringent ethics and transparency laws.
Jamie Lyons Eddy is executive director of Voters Not Politicians.
This story was originally published by Detroit News. Read more here: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/2023/08/28/eddy-state-legislature-should-tackle-ethics-transparency-issues/70700141007/