Viewpoint: Money drives political process; public needs to know who the passengers are

The Muskegon Chronicle

By Rich Robinson

Earlier this month Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and a group of Republican lawmakers announced legislative initiatives in the areas of election and campaign finance administration. I’ve been studying money in Michigan politics for more than 10 years, and I think the campaign finance initiative is worth your consideration, both for what it proposes to do, and what it does not do.

One bill delineates permissible legal expenditures from a candidate’s campaign committee and states that all other legal expenses must be paid from a legal defense fund. This bill addresses an abuse that was attempted by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Another bill would require ballot initiative committees and new political party committees to file quarterly campaign finance reports as soon as they begin to circulate petitions. This bill addresses abuses attempted by Oakland County Democratic Party operatives who wanted to confuse voters by establishing a phony tea party in 2010, and a Michigan Democratic Party-funded ballot committee known as Reform Michigan Government Now, that tried to camouflage a plan to eliminate a number of Republican-held appeals judgeships within a bed-sheet ballot initiative of sensible reforms in 2008.

Fair enough. Never again! But why do reform initiatives stop there? Why not require candidate committees and political action committees to report quarterly, too?

Our legislators and constitutional executives filed post-election reports last Dec. 2 and they will file their next reports on Jan. 31, 2012. In the intervening 14 months, those officeholders will have held hundreds of fundraisers and collected millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

So what? We shouldn’t have to wait until months after the votes are counted to know which legislators have taken contributions from Matty Moroun, as he tries to kill the New International Trade Crossing. Nor should we be kept in the dark about who the auto insurance industry is supporting in its attempt to overhaul Michigan’s no-fault catastrophic claims system, or who the medical establishment is backing in its attempt to save that system.

Money drives the public policy process and citizens should have timely knowledge of how interest groups are spending to advance their issues.

Even more conspicuous in its absence from Secretary Johnson’s campaign finance initiative is any effort to require disclosure of the funding sources behind millions of dollars of campaign spending that is not reported through the state’s campaign disclosure system. The Department of State’s interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act says that campaign ads aren’t expenditures unless they explicitly tell you how to vote. If they merely tell you that a candidate is some kind of miscreant, the ad is considered to be informational. The spending doesn’t have to be reported and neither do the sources who provided the money to buy the ad.

This enormous loophole facilitated $23 million of unreported spending in Michigan campaigns in 2010. I know because I collected records from the public files of television broadcasters and cable systems. Since the 2000 campaign, I’ve collected records of $70 million worth of gubernatorial, Supreme Court, attorney general and secretary of state TV ads that were not reported. And that is a conservative estimate of what has gone undisclosed. It does not include radio, direct mail, robo-calls or other media.

My organization has commissioned polling that asked a representative sample of Michigan voters whether they think that all sources of money in political campaigns should be reported. Ninety-six percent said, ‘yes.’ I don’t know any other question in politics on which there is that much agreement.

So why doesn’t disclosure of “issue advocacy” make the agenda of campaign finance reforms? In its Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said unequivocally that it is permissible to require such disclosure.

The problem is that the interest groups and wealthy individuals who brought officeholders to the big dance in Lansing don’t want their fingerprints to be visible on their mega-contributions. So far, officeholders have cast their lot with the interest groups rather than citizens, because citizens are apathetic, ignorant and unorganized. Interest groups know how to apply pressure.

Both major political parties are complicit in this system of mutually assured destruction that has battered our democracy. Only engaged citizens can save democracy. Demand transparency and accountability in our politics.

Rich Robinson is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the influence of money in politics and the need for campaign finance reform in Michigan.