“Michigan is an embarrassing outlier on openness in government . . .”
by guest columnist, Gerald Wilgrus
State Senator Steve Bieda is correct when he said that, and it is far more correct that we can imagine. In November 2015, The Center for Public Integrity released its State Integrity Investigation in which our Michigan ranked dead last, 50th out of the 50 states. Openness, accountability, and accessible disclosure are so fundamental to good governance that Michigan’s lack in these areas must be considered to be anti-democratic. Beyond this matter of how our government works for us all are issues for our Democratic Party and its ability to win elections.
First, of the 13 categories studied, Michigan fails in 10 of them, especially in Executive, Legislative and Judicial accountability as well as State Pension Fund Management. Transparency and accountability within those four categories is nil. Weak or non-existent governmental disclosure laws combined with a lack of enforcement authority allows poor governance to thrive while lack of transparency in management of Michigan’s pension fund has only one outcome, the lack of fiduciary responsibility to properly manage member’s pensions.
Of course we know the examples, but we need to remind ourselves of the anti-democratic environment of Michigan’s government:
- Ignorant Emergency Managers are unaccountable to their communities. These are bottom-line bean counters who put communities at risk through such actions as delivering drinking water that exceeds the allowable lead level of industrial wastewater.
- The pay-to-play corruption of lobbyist contributions and gifts to legislators who are not required to disclose those who pay for influence.
- The non-democratic exemption from the Freedom of Information Act that our legislators and the governor’s office have voted for themselves.
- The dark money with no transparency allowed to interfere with elections, including Judicial elections for Michigan’s Supreme Court.
- A toothless state Ethics Board.
- Cronyism and favoritism as accepted practices in the Legislature, the judiciary and the governor’s office. This has resulted in top officials in departments being influenced to set aside the public’s interest. It is not hard to see in departments like the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) which treats corporations as customers, not regulated entities, and acts as apologists when corporate abuse surfaces.
The result of all this is corruption in plain sight that is a feature, and not a bug, within our political system. And, to be blunt, lack of transparency and accountability is a tool to disenfranchise people’s involvement with our government when the only voices that are acted upon are those backed by money. This fuels the perception by lower-income voters that there is no difference between political parties and they fail to show up to vote [Leighley and Nagler, “Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States”]. Yet, there is the positive aspect of more open government: that when voters gain more information and trust government they shift to support more liberal policies and parties. In the current system, and with policies in place that eliminate accountability and openness, lack of trust in government presents us with the fact that low-income and middle-income voters don’t realize that conservatives are fleecing them. This offers both an opportunity and a problem for Democrats.The opportunity is that openness and accountability can eventually lead to engaged voters with more information who will see the differences between Democrat and republican governance and will vote that difference. How to do it?
- Rescind PA 4, the emergency manager act, and limit the authority of these managers to fiscal matters that requires the approval of local political authority to execute.
- Require full disclosure from all levels of state government of; campaign donations, gifts from lobbyists, and financial interests in entities with issues before the legislature or the courts. Require recusal for even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
- To enforce this, provide the Secretary of State as well as the Ethics Board with the legal ability to initiate investigations and recommend legal action. Provide them with subpoena powers.
- Provide real and draconian penalties for those in government not complying with full disclosure and recusal.
- The Robert’s court expressly invited full disclosure in Citizen’s United: let’s use it. Full disclosure of all money used for political purposes needs to be required, again, with harsh penalties for any failure to disclose.
- Require disclosure of all legislation derived from special interests, such as the legislation provided to conservative politicians by ALEC.
- Legislate to afford civil service protection to all top officials of state departments.
- Roll back privatization without direct public accountability. Ethically, if we chose to imprison somebody we have the direct responsibility for them: eliminate privatization of all penal functions. Make it impossible for charter schools to be managed by for-profit entities making management by local school boards mandatory.
Sounds good? But there is the problem of this being a long-term strategy that can suffer from incrementalism by right leaning Democrats who continually caution that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Yet, to be effective, laws that promote openness and accountability need to be insurmountable and whole. To implement them piecemeal is incrementalism. And, we can judge just how Democratic incrementalism practiced at the national level confirmed for the casual voter that without effective change there appears to be no difference between the political parties. Remember 2014? Embrace incrementalism at the state level and we will be associated in the minds of voters as republican-lite. “We will hurt you less than republicans” is not a winning campaign promise. Act like we mean to represent the public’s interests.
But, how to sell the Democratic idea of good governance? We also need to recognize that voters are lazy: we can explain our good ideas all we wish, but in the end the simple, emotional, arguments win out, regardless of the underlying truth in the appeals. Yep, “death panels” were a crock when the real death panels are the insurance companies, but we had no countervailing, simple to express, emotional argument. Here we have a good emotional argument, but will we use it? Republicans ARE fleecing low and middle income earners and nobody likes to feel like a chump. Openness and accountability are payback. But, regardless of how we play the issue, it is important to our long-term success that we promote open and accountable governance as a defining difference between the parties and demonstrate the Democratic governance is capable of improving the lives of Michigan’s citizens.