2011-06-25 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Campaign Finance Disclosure System ‘Highly Dysfunctional’
By George Weeks

In reporting last week that 2010 campaign finance transparency hit new lows, Michigan’s top watchdog on the issue said lax enforcement brought “extreme delight of the interest groups and individuals who want to buy election outcomes without leaving fingerprints.”

That well describes what has been going on for far too long, especially in state Supreme Court races.

“Our campaign finance disclosure system is highly dysfunctional,” Executive Director Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) said in revealing that nearly $23 million in unreported TV ads in 2010 statewide election campaigns pushed the state total of undisclosed candidatefocused “issue” advertising to almost $70 million since 2000.

MCFN said that unlike those who finance ads advocating votes for or against a candidate and must disclose sources of funds, current interpretation allows campaign advertisers who merely tout issues favorable or unfavorable to a candidate “to report nothing and the Department of State to turn its blind eye.”

Blind eyes. No fingerprints. What’s going on?

A startling answer is in MCFN’s 15-page report titled “$70 Million Hidden in Plain View—Michigan’s Spectacular Failure of Campaign Finance Disclosure, 2000-2010.”

It said that last year’s “gubernatorial general election, like the Supreme Court campaign, was a case where there was more spending off the books than was disclosed.”

It said that the Michigan Democratic Party spent $4.3 million on ads supporting Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, while the Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent $3.6 million supporting now-Governor Rick Snyder.

MCFN said unreported spending—that is, unreported donors who enabled it—in the gubernatorial general election overshadowed that which was reported, $7.9 million to $6.9 million.

The report said the RGA “pressured several television stations around the state to withhold records of its ads from their public files.”

In short, Michigan media contributed to the problem. I asked Robinson for specifics. While he cited some stations in Detroit and other markets that caved in to the request, he said stations in the Traverse City and Marquette markets did not cave and reported spending.

This is not a new problem, especially in Supreme Court races.

“The trajectory of Michigan Supreme Court campaigns has evolved over the last quartercentury from low key, low-dollar contests to highly financed, coarse-toned, highly secretive contests,” MCFN said in its chapter on “The Invisible Hand in Judicial Campaigns.”

The biggest player has been the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which, in Michigan politics, is to Republicans what organized labor is to Democrats. In 2002, the Chamber was the only television high court issue ad buyer, outspending the field of candidates with $1 million in unreported ads.

In 2004, the Chamber again was the only issue advertiser with $1.4 million in ads. But notable that year, as cited by MCFN, was attorney Geoffrey Fieger spending $440,000 “to attack incumbent Justice Stephen Markman in a flight of advertisements that were attributed… months after the election to a phony committee called Citizens for Judicial Reform (that was) registered at a nonexistent address with an untraceable treasurer.”

After citing these and other examples, Robinson said: “Citizens should demand that officeholders fix” the highly flawed system.

That appears highly unlikely.

Shoreline Senators vs. Invaders

Republican Senators Howard Walker of Traverse City, Tom Casperson of Escanaba, and Goeff Hansen of Hart have key environmental roles and represent 21 counties that have a total of more than 1,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline on Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron.

So it is appropriate that they scheduled a press conference Monday in Traverse City on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay to announce a comprehensive package of bills establishing the foundation for a Great Lake Basin Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) compact to protect Michigan from continued invasions of such species.

Walker, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittees on the departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, said: “The Great Lakes states must focus on the prevention, treatment, early detection and eradication of aquatic invasive species. New legislation will create a council to help establish an AIS compact addressing the issue.”

Casperson, who, like Walker, was a leader on Great Lakes issues when in the state House, chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes. Casperson and Walker have more miles of Great Lakes shoreline in their districts than other senators.

Hansen, who has three counties on Lake Michigan, chairs the Senate Committee on Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing Bureau Chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Pol itics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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