Michigan lawmakers go public with their finances in effort to boost state integrity
Michigan is the only state with a full-time legislature that doesn’t require lawmakers to fill out annual disclosure forms.
By Kristian Hernández, Center for Public Integrity
A band of 23 state legislators in Michigan pledged to make their personal finances public Thursday to promote a package of bills that would require all state elected officials to do the same.
The action by House Democrats was designed to call attention to the fact that Michigan is the only state with a full-time legislature that does not require lawmakers to fill out annual disclosure forms. Such financial disclosures are commonly required for elected officials from U.S. Congress down to local offices. And they are the only clear-cut way for the public to determine if lawmakers are voting on bills for self-enrichment, according to Grand Rapids Democratic Rep. David LaGrand.
“I have voluntarily disclosed my personal finances — ownership in real estate and businesses — because citizens have the right to know where their elected officials have financial interests,” LaGrand said.
LaGrand and three other House Democrats are the lead sponsors of four bills that would require candidates and individuals serving in judicial, legislative, executive or educational statewide elected offices to file a yearly financial disclosure report.
The new bills are backed by 23 Michigan House Democrats — including the three lead sponsors, who joined LaGrand on the steps of the state Capitol in Lansing during a Thursday press conference sponsored by the left-leaning advocacy group Progress Michigan.
“Three quarters of our citizens believe that their elected officials are actually going to work every morning to advance their own self-interest,” LaGrand said, citing a recent study by the Pew Research Center. “We have to break a cycle of mistrust. We have to break a cycle of closed door influence.”
In March 2017, LaGrand introduced the Financial Disclosure Act, but it has languished in the House Election and Ethics Committee ever since. A companion bill in the Senate has also been stuck in a committee since last year.
But this time LaGrand said they are not waiting for the bills to pass and have already signed up nearly a third of House Democrats to self-disclose. He said they want to send a message to their constituents that they are making an effort to change Michigan’s reputation as one of the least transparent states in the U.S.
Michigan scored an F in the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Investigation, conducted in partnership with Global Integrity, ranking worst in the country in the comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency.
In December, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press published “Conflicted Interests,” an investigation that analyzed the disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers across the 47 states that required such reports at the time. Idaho and Vermont were the two other states that did not require financial disclosures, but Vermont started requiring them this year. In Idaho, which has a part-time Legislature, lawmakers shot down legislation in January to require them.
The news organizations’ probe found numerous examples across the country of lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, employers or personal finances.
In Michigan, it is up to legislators to police themselves and abstain from voting if there is a potential conflict of interest. But it is rare for them to do so. A total of 25 House members disclosed their own potential conflicts of interest at least 38 times amid voting on more than 10,000 bills from 2009 through 2017, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis conducted earlier this year. Even so, the Center found five legislators who voted on the bills in which they had noted their own conflicts.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said conflicts of interest are common in the Great Lakes State and blamed both the lack of transparency and term limits for creating abuses of power in the legislature. Michigan has one of the strictest term limit laws in the nation, allowing lawmakers to serve no more than three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.
“We see a lot of rotation of state lawmakers, and they don’t always stop doing what they were doing before they became a state lawmaker,” Scott said. “We also have very weak lobbying laws, very weak financial disclosure laws, and really all of that put together is a recipe for corruption.”