By Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance
After several delays and a host of amendments, the Democratic-led Michigan House on early Thursday morning passed financial disclosure legislation for elected officials that they’re required to have on the governor’s desk by the end of the year as part of a state constitutional amendment voters approved in 2022.
The bills implementing Proposal 1 would require state officials and candidates for office to annually submit financial disclosure reports showing sources of income, properties owned and other assets valued at over $1,000 and liabilities valued over $10,000.
House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said it was a victory after the chamber finally passed the package that will now return to the Senate for final approval.
“Tonight, the Michigan House delivered on our promise to put people first, choosing action over complacency,” Tate said in a statement. “We worked in a bipartisan fashion to bring transparency and accountability to our state government, reflecting the wishes of our constituents.”
However, critics on both sides of the aisle say there are serious holes in disclosure requirements.
Although Senate Bills 613, 614, 615 and 616 would create financial disclosure in Michigan in an effort to improve a worst-in-the-nation transparency and accountability ranking that has loomed over Michigan’s head since 2015, there is strong criticism that they don’t do enough to create true change.
“I don’t think the irony should be lost on anyone that we just passed very weak financial disclosure and transparency legislation and literally the middle of the night,” state Rep. Bill Schuette (R-Midland) sad after the final votes on the package were taken just before 3 a.m. Thursday. “I think that speaks volumes to the entire process of how this was done.”
Others who voted no on the package noted that although the bills require officials and candidates to list their spouse’s education, they do not require financial disclosure for spouses, leaving a huge gap in understanding what may fund or motivate those in positions of power.
Also, there is criticism that requirements to disclose gifts in financial disclosure don’t extend past lobbyists.
Lawmakers deviated far from partisan lines in their votes on the legislation, in contrast to tallies on packages on clean energy and abortion rights that Democrats have been able to pull their 56-54 majority together on this session.
“These bills could be so much better,” Rep. Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor) said, noting several amendments to address critics’ concerns were shot down. “You’re seeing people who have very different ideologies on many different things coming together and having similar ideologies on government transparency.”
Rheingans voted against the entire package, saying she looks forward to asking leaders in her party to continue adding to legislation on financial disclosure in 2024 to make the bills do what the people of Michigan deserve.
Schuette said lawmakers have done the “bare minimum” under a legally mandated deadline in Proposal 1 voters approved in 2022, But without the possibility of legal action against lawmakers looming over their heads, he said he’s not confident lawmakers will return to the issue.
Meanwhile, Schuette has noted that financial disclosure bills from House Republicans introduced in March have laid dormant.
Although he sees the flaws with the bills, Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.) said that the package fulfills the constitutional obligation set out to lawmakers and now further work can be done to build upon the bills.
“I’m excited that there’s such an appetite for it and I hope that we can change what I’ve seen as something of an apathy on this topic in Lansing in the three years that I’ve been here,” Fink said.
The appetite in Lansing stems from events in recent years where either elected officials have been accused of unethical behavior, and, in some cases, convicted on charges.
GOP former House Speaker Rick Johnson pleaded guilty in September to taking bribes while at the head of the state’s marijuana regulatory board.
An investigation by the Detroit News that same month found that Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) who chairs the House Appropriations Committee that authors budget bills, has maintained a close relationship with the consulting firm she founded that raises ethical questions.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is a Democrat who has testified several times in committees to advocate for various legislation to move Michigan from “worst to first” in government transparency. She said during an October Senate Oversight Committee meeting, when the bills were first introduced, there isn’t enough her office can do to investigate whether a person is lying on financial disclosure forms unless laws are changed.
“We’ve often said we want to go worst first,” Benson said. “These bills on their own would not take us there. However, we can do more and I know and I believe there’s will on both sides of the aisle in both chambers to do more.”
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