The following is a commentary from state Representative Bill LaVoy (D-Monroe). He can be reached at (517) 373-1530 or at BillLaVoy@house.mi.gov.
“I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of this state, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ______________ according to the best of my ability.”
This is the oath that all state elected officials take before they assume their office. I take this oath to mean that I will faithfully serve the people of my district and the state. However, it seems some members of the Legislature swore faith of another sort.
A few years ago, the campaign contribution limit for individuals was $3,400 per election cycle for most state-level races. Political action committees (PACs) were allowed 10 times that amount. But members of the majority party in Lansing felt that wasn’t enough, so two years ago, they doubled those amounts.
Among the concerns that many families in Michigan are facing — water quality fears, making ends meet, good schools for their kids, finding a job after graduation, when and whether they can retire — allowing more money into our elections doesn’t make the list.
So why did legislators feel it was necessary to flood the electoral process with more money? Because they believe they swore an oath not to the people, but to the wealthy donors that bankroll their campaigns.
That might seem like a strong accusation, but if there was any doubt who some in Lansing truly serve, it was erased late last year.
On the last day of session in 2015, the House took up Senate Bill 571 for a vote. When it reached the House floor, it was a 12-page bill that made mostly technical changes to our election law, such as streamlining reporting requirements. It passed the Senate unanimously.
However, the language of the bill was substituted right before it came up for a vote in the House. The legislation swelled to 53 pages and now included several major changes to existing law. Without a chance to review this new text, it passed on a partisan vote. The Senate approved the changes in similar fashion.
In its final form, the bill prohibits local officials from using public funds to disseminate information about a ballot proposal or millage in the 60 days before an election. Those officials were already prohibited from advocating a yes or no vote; they only gave neutral information. Acting in an official capacity may violate this law even if they give neutral information. PACs, however, can say whatever they want. This could have the effect of increasing dark money in the election process.
How ironic is it that when legislators advocated for eliminating the straight-ticket voting option, they said they wanted more informed voters? They followed that claim by passing a bill that makes it harder for voters to get information about their ballots.
Finally, the bill allows campaign contributions in one election cycle to apply to the debts from a previous campaign. That means that individuals and PACs can effectively donate the maximum amount twice. In other words, the Legislature has, in two years, quadrupled the maximum amount of political donations allowed in Michigan elections.
After the bill’s passage, some legislators who voted in favor said they didn’t fully review the bill’s changes, and regretted their support. They, along with local officials who would be subject to the gag order on ballot proposals, urged the governor’s veto.
Unfortunately, the governor signed the bill into law. He released a statement asking the Legislature to fix the problems with the legislation. As of now, nothing has come to a vote in either chamber. If a real fix doesn’t happen soon, voters may not get unbiased information about ballot proposals or millages to help them make an informed decision.