Michigan HB 4642-4649 would improve transparency statewide by requiring elected officials to file financial disclosure reports to avoid conflicts of interest.
A House committee passed the measure 6-1 that would require certain positions – including the governor and attorney general as well as members of the state House and Senate – to file financial disclosures with the secretary of state.
State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, told The Center Square that every state except Michigan and Idaho require state elected officials to file financial disclosures.
“For me, when we’re talking about government transparency and clean government, nothing is more important than understanding where personal interests of legislators lie,” LaGrand said.
Building voter trust is a bipartisan issue, he added.
“Roughly 75 percent of the voters in my state are of the opinion that elected officials are in fact operating in order to further their own self-interest rather than the general public,” LaGrand said.
The Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last in the nation in transparency in 2015.
LaGrand said lawmakers have some legitimate concerns that financial disclosures may discourage people from running for office because their personal financial situations, whether they're wealthy or not, would be open to the public.
“That’s true. Just like how talking to voters might make you reluctant to run for office, or having to talk to the media, or raising money,” LaGrand said. “There are lots of things you have to do to run for office. You can call them barriers if you want, but I don’t think being honest with voters is something we should stop doing because it requires work.”
The annual disclosure filed to the secretary of state would include:
- Income over $5,000.
- Any property’s address owned by the individual if the property value is $50,000 or more.
- A description of stocks and bonds with a market value of $10,000 or more.
- Compensation of the candidate or elected official or family members on boards that is worth more than $1,000 annually.
- Family members who are registered lobbyists, their clients and compensation for that lobbying.
- Interests in a legal business operating in Michigan if it’s valued at $10,000 or more.
Lagrand said simply relying on filed tax returns can miss conflicts of interest such as an officeholder buying large amounts of stock in an industry, holding it for more than a year, and then inflating that stock price through heightened media attention.
The proposed new disclosures wouldn’t have stopped him from running for office, he said, although he is associated with 8 LLC’s because he sees them as investments in the Michigan economy.
Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), told The Center Square that the public is aware that members of Congress are becoming increasingly wealthy because of these financial disclosures.
“I think a lot of the members of the public I talk to are wondering, ‘are members of the legislature, or any government official, doing things in their own interest or in the interest of the people who give them campaign money, or are they doing it in the public interest?”’
The MCFN is neutral on the bill.
LaGrand said more disclosures can bring conversations about possible conflict of interests.
“I’m trying to break through a huge backlog of voter distrust in politicians,” LaGrand said. “So having those healthy conversations will help. It won’t change things overnight. We'll have to change things in a slow, persistent, iterative conversation."
The bills move to the House Ways and Means committee before they’ll get a vote in the full House.