LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan could end up being the only state in the country where legislators pass and reject laws without the public knowing about their personal finances, a distinction that good government watchdogs say is an embarrassment that must be changed.
Forty-seven states now require lawmakers to file some type of financial disclosure that lists their occupation, income or business associations — information that indicates if a legislator might benefit personally from supporting or opposing legislation.
Vermont will begin mandating disclosure reports next year. And in Idaho, a group of lawmakers recently agreed that elected officials should disclose financial information and forwarded a proposal to the full Legislature for consideration in 2018.
“It’s increasingly looking like we’ll be the only state” with no personal financial disclosure, said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “In Michigan, we have no idea what financial interests these people have.”
The Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found that at least 76 percent of state legislators around the country reported outside income or employment in 2015. The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state legislators who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances.
In Michigan, the public knows little beyond biographical information provided by candidates running for the Legislature. Potential conflicts become public record only if legislators — who make $71,685 a year — take the extremely rare step of recusing themselves from voting.
Representatives “may” abstain from voting because of a possible conflict of interest, according to House rules. Three of 110 members have done so this year in seven of the 425 roll call votes: Democrats Robert Wittenberg, a former insurance agent from Huntington Woods, from insurance-related bills; retired fire chief Tom Cochran, of Mason, from a pension measure; and lawyer and small business owner David LaGrand, of Grand Rapids, from bills related to liquor licensing and eviction proceedings.
In the 38-member Senate, members “shall not vote” if they have a personal, private or professional interest in a bill. One senator, Republican Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, a retired state trooper with a pension, twice this year disqualified himself from voting on legislation that he said could affect his retirement situation.
While senators who violate the rule can face an ethics investigation and discipline, this has not occurred in recent memory, if ever.
Bills to require personal financial disclosure have died over the years, despite many lawmakers saying they support the concept. The last time the legislation gained traction was 2009, when it won bipartisan approval from what was then a Democratic-led House, 81-18, only to go nowhere in the GOP-led Senate.
Republicans have controlled both chambers since 2011 and are not expected to consider financial disclosure proposals that were introduced by Democrats in March.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof “has well established his position that elected officials are still entitled to a small amount of private income and that Senate rules already require a disclosure of a conflict of interest,” said spokeswoman Amber McCann. Some legislators — who are limited to 14 years of service and are known to have side businesses — have defended votes that benefit their businesses or industries, saying they bring important expertise to the debate.
The resistance comes despite some high-profile Republican leaders supporting increased disclosure. When Rick Snyder first ran for governor, he said Michigan should require elected officials and top appointees to file yearly reports of their tax returns and potential conflicts of interest. But other than voluntarily releasing his own tax information each year, financial disclosure legislation has not been a priority.
A 2016 investigation by Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that fewer lawmakers are avoiding votes because of potential conflicts than in the past. They also discovered cases of legislators spearheading bills that affected their careers outside the Legislature.
One example: A former House member who drove for Uber on the side voted for state regulations of ride-hailing companies and sponsored an amendment to prevent airports from blocking drivers from picking up and dropping off passengers.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is running to succeed the term-limited Snyder and who was a lawmaker for four years, has sought to elevate the issue this year.
“It really does stick out as being an outlier compared to other states and the requirements that they have,” he said.
Calley said sharing tax returns is fine, but the returns are limited and it is important to know elected officials’ sources of income and their assets. Members of Congress and federal candidates already have to make financial disclosures.
“The public would have confidence that conflicts of interest were being managed appropriately if they understood the sources of income the decision-makers had,” he said. “I don’t think that’s asking all that much for our state to join the ranks of much of the rest of the nation in putting these types of requirements in.”
Mauger, an expert on money in politics, said candidates too often have pushed financial disclosure to “score political points” but once they are in office, “have not been serious about getting down and doing the work of putting disclosure measures in place.”