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Guest commentary

Guest column: Sunshine obscured by smog

By Rich Robinson/Michigan Campaign Finance Network

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” — Luke 12: 48

Dear State Officeholder:

Please set aside the archaic sexism of the verse I’ve quoted to introduce this letter. Our world has evolved, I know, but I thought this bit of scripture was superbly eloquent in capturing much of the reason we’re observing Sunshine Week.

You certainly understand that the preponderance of money in politics isn’t a token of love, or even, necessarily, respect. Once you get beyond your family and true friends, those who spend to support your election campaign, and those who spend to lobby you, are rational economic actors. They are making an investment in you to advance their interests. And if they have committed much, they will ask the more.

If you don’t believe Luke, check with Adam Smith. He’d tell you the same thing.

I don’t raise this to be critical of you. This is the system we have. We all get it: “Money equals speech,” and all that.

Rich Robinson is the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Here’s the rub: You don’t represent just those who pay good money to be represented. You represent everyone in the jurisdiction that elected you, whether they voted for you, or not; whether they wrote you a check, or not; whether they’ll buy your supper, or not.

Our duty as citizens is to evaluate how you’re doing your job, so we know whether we should vote for you, or not. A big part of that evaluation is deciding whose interests you’re serving: All the citizens, or just those who invest in you.

And that brings us back to Sunshine Week.

Dark money on the rise

As you surely know, there is a whole lot of money in Michigan politics that can’t be traced to its sources. I’ve documented more than $80 million of dark money in state election campaigns since 2000. I thought it was bad in 2010, when every major statewide race except the Republican gubernatorial primary was half off the books. Then, in 2012, we had a Supreme Court campaign that was 75 percent dark money.

The reports we get from lobbyists are a poor imitation of what they should be. We’re allowed to know the identities on the historic list of clients of the multi-client firms, and we know how big their black boxes of money are, but we don’t get to know how much they spend to represent their current clients. We can’t really see who is pushing for what, and how hard.

For pity’s sake, Texas makes multi-client lobbyists disclose their contracts. Are the ethics in Texas that far superior to ours?

Lobbyists shell out a lot of money to provide you and your peers with entertainment in the form of dining and imbibing. But year in and year out, two-thirds of what Michigan lobbyists report spending for food, drink, travel and accommodations doesn’t connect to a named beneficiary. That’s because there are minimum thresholds that trigger reporting of recipients, and they are designed to not catch much. Apparently we are supposed to be satisfied knowing how much free lunch officeholders and administration honchos consume as a class, with just a little bit of information about who is really cashing in at the big trough.

Most Michiganders that I know don’t accept the construct that we are customers of the state. We are citizens, and we have an obligation to exercise oversight on the functioning of our government. The shameful lack of transparency in Michigan campaign finances, lobbying and personal financial disclosure by public officials (where we are one of only three states that requires no reporting) is a national embarrassment that keeps citizens from doing our job.

An action plan for reform

Here is an essential list of what needs to be done:

* All communications about candidates for public office must be treated as campaign expenditures, and the sources that pay for them must be disclosed — not just the shell entity that does the aggregating of cash. The Citizens United ruling made it unambiguously clear that this is constitutionally permissible.

* All multi-client lobbyists should disclose their lobbying contracts – the clients they are representing and how much the clients are paying. Better still, it should be declared which budget, bill or regulation the client wants to steer. And all spending by lobbyists for food, drink, travel and accommodations should be reported with a named recipient – even if it’s only a dollar.

*All elected officials should be required to file an annual statement of personal finances — not so we can assess your net worth, but so we can detect whether there is self-dealing taking place.

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the professional apologists for dark money when they argue that disclosure is intimidation, and transparency compromises their First Amendment right to freedom of association. That argument is very loosely derived from the 1958 Supreme Court case of NAACP v. Alabama. It is absolutely a false equivalence to suggest that cowardly billionaires who want to own politics without being accountable for their actions somehow deserve the same protections as civil rights workers who risked being lynched in the Jim Crow South.

One positive aspect about the appalling lack of transparency and accountability for money in Michigan politics is that there is no possibility of a blame game. The shallow theater and dissembling that characterize national politics doesn’t work in Lansing. Power comes with responsibility. For better, and for worse, at this moment in history Republicans own this situation. If Republicans address the scourge of dark money, they own that trophy. If they don’t, they own the disgrace.

The smog that obscures the disinfecting sunshine we need in Michigan politics can be cleared away. We just need you, dear officeholder, to work with your colleagues and take the side of the vast majority of citizens, instead of the actors who want to rig the great game and leave no fingerprints.

Get in touch with your core values. Fix this. You’ll live a better life if you do.

Sincerely yours,

Rich Robinson

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Charles Richards

    ” It is absolutely a false equivalence to suggest that cowardly billionaires who want to own politics without being accountable for their actions somehow deserve the same protections as civil rights workers who risked being lynched in the Jim Crow South.” This is absurd. Perhaps Mr. Robinson doesn’t recall (or care) that ordinary citizens who contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign in California were the victims of personal and economic retaliation.

    There is no correlation between the ability of corporations to contribute to state elections and corruption in that state. Nor is there any correlation between disclosure requirements and corruption. Some states with strict disclosure laws have a high degree of corruption, while states without such laws have a high degree of honesty and integrity. It is more a matter of culture than procedure.

    1. Rich Robinson

      The intimidation question has been adjudicated. See J Scalia in Doe v. Reed.

  2. Duane

    The fact that Mr. Robinson quotes the Bible as if it is defining corruption when it could be describing individual philanthropy suggests a close mind.
    He belittles the idea of ‘money’ being equated to free speech and yet he ignores how by being the head of his organization (which is supported by money) he has an opportunity for communicating his message what the vast majority of citizens can. He can’t accept that good and honest people are willing to support, with contributions, others to create a platform that may approach his platform or that of others.
    Mr. Robinson dismisses the idea of intimidation of people by others simply because their names and legal activities are held by the government. So soon he forgets what the media in New York did to licensed gun owners or what happen to people who signed a petition for a ballot proposal in Washington State a few years ago.
    Mr. Robinson claims a nobility of intend when he wants for public record the detail financial statement for each person holding public office. He obviously wants to discourage people from running for public office. Whether it is someone with or without debt, or someone with more or less savings than others in their community simply having to make that public creates a barrier to participation. Mr. Robinson may see every elected official as another Chicago Congressman that spends the campaign contributions on himself, which is already illegal, but the public records of personal financial status will not change those kind of crimes. For the criminals will always find ways to hide their ill-gotten gains. I can assure you it will discourage private individuals from running for elected office for in spite of Mr. Robinson’s claims that it is not to assess someone’s net worth, the information will be out there and that is just what will happen. For those that are wealthier than the norm will be attack for having that wealth (didn’t that just happen this past election), for those that are not as wealthy as the norm could be looked at as being tempt able (oh that right Mr. Robinson believes everyone succumbs to the temptation of money) and should not be considered for election. Mr. Robinson may truly believe that in his ‘neighborhood’ everyone is of his ‘high’ ethical standards, I wonder if he as every truly watch what happens in political campaigns.

    Mr. Robinson may see his so called ‘dark money’ as a scourge, but from what history I have read it was those of the ‘high’ moral standards that got the Constitution changes and facilitated the explosion of organized crime in America.

    As best I can tell the temptations of campaigning has been with us throughout our history including with the founding fathers and yet it seems of this imperfect systems of political selection of ours has survived the longest and still provides as ethical politicians as a whole as anywhere else in the world.

    It is amazing that Mr. Robinson has the answer to our campaign ills but shows no interest in elevating the number and caliber of candidates willing to run for office rather then run from politics.

  3. Jim Kress

    I have a better solution. Clean up the voter registration databases. Then, every 4 years all representatives, senators and other currently elected officials will be randomly selected from the list of registered voters. Make the legislature part-time with a duration of 2 months per year.


    No more need for money in politics – at least for elections.

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