State election official seeks more transparency

By Alanna Durkin
Associated Press

LANSING (AP) — Michigan’s top elections official wants to require political campaigns to report financial contributions within 48 hours after they receive them, one of several proposals aimed at giving voters nearly real-time information about the money behind the candidates.

As part of this week’s observance of National Sunshine Week, an initiative aimed at improving government transparency, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said she is working with lawmakers to draft legislation and push through some long-elusive changes to the state’s campaign finance system.

Under current law, voters often have to wait months before being able to access critical information about contributors to groups funding the candidates.

“That’s a long time not to have that information, with lots of voting going on and lots of decision making,” she said.

Instead, state-level campaigns and committees established to campaign for or against ballot questions would have to report any contribution exceeding $1,000 within two days and allow anyone to access it online within three.

Currently, during an election year, groups only have to report periodically, once in January and then again before and after the primary and general elections.

Johnson, a Republican, also is proposing that candidates be required to file electronic reports if they raise $5,000 a year, up from the current $20,000.

She wants to impose the same kind of electronic reporting requirements on mayors, township trustees and other city officials as candidates for state office face, allowing voters to monitor which campaigns are delinquent in reporting the information.

Ballot questions committees would be required to report their contributions more frequently.

Right now, many times ballot question committees don’t have to file a report until the end of October, just before the election, Johnson said.

But Johnson must rely on lawmakers to pass legislation for these changes to go through, which has proved difficult in the past.

One of Johnson’s predecessors, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, also sought sweeping changes to the state’s finance laws but with little success.

In 2006, Land called for real-time reporting for all contributions and expenditures made by every committee filing with the state, but she was unable to get a bill through the legislature.

Rich Robinson, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said past efforts likely failed in part because lawmakers feared more frequent reporting requirements would expose the correlation between issues they work for and the money they receive.

“If those connections are obscure, that makes it a little more comfortable for them,” he said.

Land put in place the state’s automated online reporting system in 2004 to make it easier for candidates to disclose their spending, but also wanted a $3 million dollar upgrade to the state’s campaign finance computer system to make it like an electronic checkbook, prohibiting groups from spending the money until they report it.

Johnson’s proposal to require real-time reporting for large donations would add no extra cost to the state because the online reporting system is already in place, said Johnson’s spokeswoman Gisgie Gendreau. Groups would just be required to use it more frequently.

Johnson said her desire to provide more public access to government stems from a personal experience when, as a state representative, she struggled to get a school district to disclose information while investigating the misuse of school funds.

“I understand how things can be done to withhold information from the public that they really deserve to know,” she said.

Ari Adler, spokesman for Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican from Marshall, said the House Republicans welcome Johnson’s ideas and will take a close look at them.

“We’ll want to see if it’s the right policy to have in place and also how her ideas for legislation mesh with ideas of our own,” Adler said.

Bob McCann, spokesman for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing said “certainly there is support on our side of the aisle” for ways to improve transparency in elections.

But, he said in the Republican-led Legislature, it is up to the GOP “to see if this moves forward.”