Bills would weaken power of incoming Democrats

By David Eggert
 Associated Press
 
LANSING (AP) — Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson ran in part on a pledge to advocate for election transparency, so the public knows more about people and groups spending to influence races and ballot drives.

But before she even takes office next month, her duty to oversee Michigan’s campaign finance system could be gone — stripped if a new Republican-sponsored bill is enacted into law.

The legislation would create a bipartisan commission to oversee campaign finance and is among several newly introduced measures being considered by the GOP-led Legislature in the final weeks before Democrats take over the governor, attorney general and secretary of state offices.

They have not jointly held the top three jobs in 28 years, and Republican lawmakers are making moves to weaken their powers in certain areas.

In a statement issued Friday, Benson said the “hyper-partisan” bill proposing a Fair Political Practices Commission, led by three Democrats and three Republicans, would “lead to more gridlock and less enforcement of our already weak campaign finance laws. Extreme partisanship like this just breeds more partisanship and benefits no one but the special interests.”

She called on “responsible parties on both sides of the aisle to put an end to this type of partisanship and get on with the people’s business.”

Benson earlier told WJR Radio that the legislation is an "insult" to voters that, if enacted, would trigger lawsuits, which occurred in North Carolina after its GOP-controlled Legislature and outgoing Republican governor in 2016 took away some of the incoming Democratic governor’s authority.

One law merged the state elections and ethics panels into a single board comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans, rather than let the governor-elect put a majority of Democrats on the elections board.

Though a Senate GOP spokeswoman said the bill’s intent is to remove partisanship from the oversight of political spending, Democratic Rep. Jeremy Moss of Southfield tweeted that it is “utter trash” and contradicts Republican legislators’assertion that “unelected bureaucrats” have too much sway in government.

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer’s powers are outlined in the state constitution, a barrier to efforts to diminish her authority. But another GOP-sponsored bill could impact her and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel when they consider the state’s positions on laws being challenged in the courts.

The legislation would empower the Legislature, the House and the Senate to intervene in any suit at any stage — a right already granted to the attorney general. They also would have the same right to appeal as other parties. It is seen as a maneuver to ensure that Republicans could support laws if Whitmer and Nessel drop the state’s defense.

Nessel, for example, has said she probably will not defend a law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.

GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard lost to Nessel in the attorney general’s race and has said it is not an attorney general’s role to pick and choose laws to enforce. He called the bill “good government reform,” saying it would allow “the people to have a stronger voice” in suits.

Yet Nessel’s transition spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, said Nessel is “deeply concerned and troubled” by what she said is an effort to undermine her role.

“Those legislators pushing this law should be reminded that the people elect their attorneys general and their governors and such a proposal, should it pass, would have a dramatic and disastrous impact on the state of Michigan and its residents for years to come,” she said. House Democrats said the legislation would threaten the separations of powers, waste taxpayer money and raise constitutional issues.

Another bill , which is pending in the House after winning Senate approval on Thursday, is seen by some as a pre-emptive maneuver against both Benson and Nessel.

It would prohibit public agencies from requiring nonprofits to disclose their donors unless they have a warrant.

Supporters said it would protect First Amendment freedoms and not disrupt the status quo, nor would it affect the campaign finance law.

Opponents, however, dubbed it a “dark money protection”" measure because it would shield nonprofits that spend heavily to sway elections.

Current law allows the attorney general to inspect charities’ books and records to crack down on fraud. In a Facebook post, Nessel said the legislation is “shameful” and would limit her ability to protect residents from scams.

The actions are the latest in a lame-duck session in which majority Republicans are trying to substantially scale back citizen-initiated minimum wage and paid sick leave laws they helped to pass before the election.

Outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's spokesman Ari Adler said he is not taking a position on the newest bills until they get to his desk, “assuming the legislation makes it that far.”

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