Detroit News. September 16, 2022.
Editorial: Lawmakers Should Own Their Pig
Perhaps the lesson from the Legislative Assembly’s massive spending is this: Leave a billion dollars lying around, and politicians will find a way to spend it, and not always for the benefit of taxpayers. That is, as long as there is no way to hold them accountable.
An in-depth investigation by reporters Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger of The Detroit News into the Legislature’s frenzied special projects spending earlier this year uncovered several credits to major campaign donors and other well-connected individuals. .
Included $20 million to a curiously structured nonprofit organization whose founders, a Detroit real estate development company, are building a riverside hotel and condominiums, and wanted help cleaning up the site.
Another $21 million was spent on initiatives related to two unions and a building trades association.
Lawmakers have earmarked $15 million for the construction of utilities for a subdivision in Salem Township planned by a former Republican Party chairman.
A proposed University of Michigan satellite campus in downtown Detroit to support a larger project by billionaire Stephen Ross and the Ilitch family has landed $100 million.
These appropriations and dozens of others are linked by common threads. In almost all cases, the recipients are also campaign contributors to legislators or their political action committees.
And it’s nearly impossible to trace the decision-making process that put taxpayers’ money in their hands.
The billion dollars was split in private meetings between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with each caucus given an amount of money to spend. The public had little chance to scrutinize the awards – the final list wasn’t released until the night of the vote.
Even some lawmakers who represent the districts where the money was targeted were unaware of the spending.
The special projects spending was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote and signed off by Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Figuring out which lawmakers championed which projects is a challenge because of Michigan’s weaker transparency laws. The legislator does not have to disclose which legislators recommended earmarking.
This should change. Michigan’s ethics and transparency rules are notoriously weak. If a legislator directs special expenditure to a private interest, his name must be attached to it.
Moreover, such credits should not be made in the dark of night. Each award must be presented publicly and debated and defended in a public session.
Nor does the work have to be done on time. Once the list of special projects is completed, there should be a reasonable period of public review before the bill is forwarded to the governor.
Of course, this pork festival was made possible by the record amount of money that poured into Lansing this year thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenues and pandemic controls from Washington.
This billion dollars should have been used to reduce tax rates, or at least returned to local communities in the form of revenue-sharing grants.
It should be noted that the influx of cash into the public treasury corresponded to an increase in expenditure by lobbyists. Lobbyists said they spent $28 million from January to July, up $4 million from the same period in 2021.
Michigan plans to follow this year’s $3 billion surplus to $5 billion in 2023.
Before this money is cut, the state should have a better plan for its use and laws in place to ensure a more transparent spending process. Or return it to the citizens who sent it to Lansing in the first place.
Traverse City Record-Eagle. September 16, 2022.
Editorial: FOIA Exemptions Fuel Public Mistrust
We have an idea for the governor of Michigan to act before the start of the next term: expand the state’s freedom of information laws to apply to the executive office.
Then, if Governor Gretchen Whitmer returns to office, what a positive and meaningful way to begin her second term — fulfilling the promise she made to the people of Michigan when she campaigned in 2018.
And, if she doesn’t come back, she can always keep that promise and leave it as a parting gift. What a statement that would make to his successor. So the.
In other words, the work of the public must be done in public.
This is currently not the case. But it has to happen – and it has to happen soon. Transparency is what it will take to help repair the damage that has been done in Michigan.
In our work as reporters in this region, we come across people who are dissatisfied with their government, distrustful of the system. And any branch of government allowed to operate in secrecy sends a negative message that fuels this view.
Second, when an elected body is to be compelled by court order to provide information that taxpayers and voting citizens are entitled to know, this further reinforces mistrust.
Why should a request for public information be viewed with suspicion? It’s really disconcerting for us. After all, elected officials are public servants. Questions regarding public business should not be an imposition, such questions should be expected – welcome, in fact – and answered promptly.
We have a big problem in Michigan, which is one of only two states that exempts both the governor’s office and the legislature from FOIA requests.
It’s true: Forty-eight states are more open than our Midwestern “integrity model.” What happened here? High-flying intentions of openness and accountability have been voiced, literally, for years, but legislative proposals have stalled, withering in state Senate committee.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an “F” grade for executive and legislative accountability, among other categories, in 2015. Not much has changed since then.
House lawmakers proposed FOIA improvements in the wake of the Flint water disaster. In 2020, a package of 10 bills, the first major FOIA revisions in its more than 40-year history, began making their way through the Legislative Assembly. These would have removed exemptions that allow the legislature and the governor’s office to operate in secret.
It should be noted that the existing FOIA law does not explicitly exempt the legislature. But, when a 1986 attorney general’s opinion held that the law was intended to protect lawmakers from public view while conducting public business, it had the force of law. This provides a handy cover for lawmakers, unless they choose to do something about it.
Here’s the point: they need to do something about it, unless they have a lot to hide. This is the message that voters are getting.
In the meantime, a group called Progress Michigan isn’t counting on the governor or the legislature to do anything. They are planning a ballot initiative for November 2024 calling for the elimination of these FOIA exemptions for the Legislature and the Governor’s office.
Either way, something will give. We would prefer it to be as soon as possible – for the good of our state.
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