Editorial Roundup: Michigan

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Detroit News. September 16, 2022.

Editorial: Lawmakers should own their pork

Perhaps the lesson from the Legislature’s massive pork barrel spending sprees is this: Leave a billion dollars lying around, and politicians will find a way to spend it, and not always for the benefit of the taxpayers. That is, as long as there’s no way to hold them accountable.

An extensive investigation by reporters Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger of The Detroit News into the Legislature’s frenzied special projects spending earlier this year turned up several appropriations to big campaign donors and other well-connected individuals.

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Included were $20 million to a curiously structured non-profit whose founders, a Detroit real estate development firm, are building a riverfront hotel and condominiums, and wanted help cleaning up the site.

Another $21 million went to initiatives linked to two labor unions and a construction trade association.

Lawmakers directed $15 million to build out utilities for a housing development in Salem Township planned by a former Republican state party chair.

A University of Michigan satellite campus proposed for downtown Detroit to support a larger project by billionaire Stephen Ross and the Ilitch family landed $100 million.

These appropriations and scores of others are linked by common threads. In nearly every case, the recipients are also campaign contributors to lawmakers or their political action committees.

And it is almost impossible to trace the decision-making process that placed the taxpayer money in their hands.

The $1 billion was divvied up in private meetings between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with each caucus getting a pile of money to spend. The public had little chance to review the awards — the final list was not released until the night of the vote.

Even some lawmakers who represent districts where the money was targeted were unaware of the expenditures.

The special projects spending was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote and signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Determining which lawmakers championed which projects is a challenge because of Michigan’s weakest-in-the-nation transparency laws. The legislature does not have to disclose which lawmakers recommended a special appropriation.

That should change. Ethics and transparency rules in Michigan are notoriously weak. If a lawmaker directs special spending toward a private interest, his or her name should be attached to it.

In addition, such appropriations should not be done in the dark of night. Each award should be presented publicly and debated and defended in an open session.

The work also shouldn’t be done on deadline. Once the special projects list is completed, there should be a reasonable public review period before the bill goes to the governor.

Of course, this festival of pork was enabled by the record amount of money that flooded into Lansing this year thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue and pandemic checks from Washington.

That $1 billion should have been used to lower tax rates, or at the least sent back to local communities in the form of revenue sharing grants.

It’s notable that the influx of cash to the state Treasury corresponded with an increase in lobbyist spending. Lobbyists reported spending $28 million from January through July, $4 million more than for the same period in 2021.

Michigan expects to follow up this year’s $3 billion surplus with $5 billion in 2023.

Before that money is carved up, the state should have a better a plan for its use and laws in place to guarantee a more transparent spending process. Or give it back to the citizens who sent it to Lansing in the first place.

Traverse City Record-Eagle. September 16, 2022.

Editorial: FOIA exemptions feed public distrust

We have an idea for Michigan’s governor to act on before the next term begins: Expand the state’s Freedom of Information Act laws to apply to the executive office.

Then, if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer returns to office, what a positive, meaningful way to start her second term — holding to the promise she made to the people of the state of Michigan when she campaigned in 2018.

And, if she isn’t returning, she can still act on that promise and leave it as a parting gift. What a statement that would make to her successor. So there.

Simply put, the public’s work must be done in public.

That isn’t happening right now. But it needs to happen — and it needs to happen soon. Openness is what it’s going to take to help repair the damage that has been done in Michigan.

As we go about our work as reporters in this region, we encounter people who are upset with their government, who distrust the system. And any branch of government that is allowed to operate in secrecy sends a negative message that feeds that view.

Then, when an elected body has to be compelled by court order to provide information that the taxpaying, voting citizens have a right to know, it further confirms the distrust.

Why must a request for public information be viewed with suspicion? It truly is baffling to us. After all, elected officials are public servants. Questions regarding the public’s business should not be an imposition, those questions should be expected — welcomed, in fact — and answered promptly.

We’ve got a big problem in Michigan, which is one of only two states that exempt both the governor’s office and the Legislature from FOIA requests.

That’s right: Forty-eight states are more open than our Midwestern “model of integrity.” What the heck happened here? High-flying intentions of openness and accountability have been expressed, literally for years, but legislative proposals have stalled, withering in committee in the state Senate.

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 10-bill package, the first significant revisions to the FOIA in its more than 40-year history, began to wend its way through the Legislature. These would have removed the exemptions that allow the Legislature and governor’s office to operate in secret.

We should note that the existing FOIA law doesn’t explicitly exempt the Legislature. But, when a 1986 attorney general’s opinion held that the statute was intended to shield lawmakers from public view while conducting the public’s business, it had the force of law. That provides a convenient cover for legislators, unless they choose to do something about it.

Here’s the point: They need to do something about it — unless they’ve got a lot to hide. That’s the message voters are getting.

In the meantime, a group called Progress Michigan isn’t relying on the governor or Legislature to do anything. They’re planning a ballot initiative for November 2024 calling for the elimination of those FOIA exemptions for the Legislature and governor’s office.

Either way, something’s going to give. We’d prefer it be sooner rather than later — for the sake of our state.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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