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Michigan remains notorious for secret campaign funding

If Michigan lawmakers are in the mood to offer reforms that could appease parts of the Occupy Wall St. movement — though there’s no indication that they are — beefing up the the state’s rules for campaign finance disclosure might make a good start.

Michigan is notorious for the huge role that secret cash plays in elections, and the top item on the list of grievances and demands produced by Occupy Detroit is controlling money in politics.

In this state, outside (non-candidate) groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on “electioneering communications” that advocate for or against a candidate but don’t explicitly tell people how to vote, and those groups are not required to file campaign finance reports with the state.

The lack of reporting on the financing of issue ad represents a “gaping hole” in the Michigan‘s disclosure laws, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics, which recently published a survey of state campaign finance laws.

The non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network gathers information about campaign-related ad buys from the public records of television stations that show which organizations paid for ads but don’t provide information about where that group got the money.

According to MCFN, secretly-funded television issue ads now make up the bulk of the election-related ads viewed by state voters.

Groups that are exempt from disclosure rules spent nearly $70 million on races for Michigan Supreme Court, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general over the last decade, MCFN found. In the general election last year 72% of TV advertising was undisclosed.

Last year’s state supreme court race featured $23 million dollars worth of secretly-financed advertising for and against candidates.

The top vote getter in the 2010 Michigan Supreme Court race was Third Circuit Judge Mary Beth Kelly who, according to MCFN, did not spend any of her own campaign money on TV ads but benefitted from millions in ads bought by the Michigan Republican Party and the Michigan Association of Realtors.

“Michigan has become a national symbol of special-interest pressure on our courts of law,” Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan legal reform group said in a statement.

According to a report released last week by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Michigan Supreme Court race in 2010 was by far the most expensive in the nation.

According to that report, an advertising blitz that involved an estimated $6.8 to $8.8 million in non-candidate, disclosure-exempt funding helped elect Justice Mary Beth Kelly and reelect Justice Robert Young and tip the balance of the court back to a 4-3 conservative majority.

Most of the special-interest spending in Michigan was concealed from the public, a fact that accounts for the variation in estimates of total spending. Although ads by both parties and the [Law Enforcement Alliance of America] LEAA were blatant attempts to sway votes, Michigan’s outdated disclosure law treated them as apolitical “issue ads,” and required no campaign finance filings disclosing the amounts spent. Estimates of total spending therefore were largely based on the volume of TV ads each group ran, and estimates of what that airtime cost.

It also was impossible to decipher who ultimately bankrolled independent efforts in Michigan. After being the preeminent player in the previous five supreme court campaigns, the state Chamber of Commerce sponsored no television advertisements in 2010. But it did give $5.4 million to the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a national campaign organization. The RGA ultimately transferred $5.2 million back to Michigan’s Republican Party, which was the leading television sponsor in this year’s high court campaign. Accountability was lost in the face of the RGA’s massive national shell game.

While secret funding of any political campaign is problematic — particularly as elected officials advance privatization and business tax cuts as solutions to the state’s budget problems — secret funding of judicial races is seen as especially troublesome and there are signs that there is broad support for campaign finance reform, especially when it comes to judicial races.

In addition to the Occupy Wall St. movement, some the of the state’s largest papers have editorialized in favor of requiring disclosure.

A 20/20 Insight LLC poll conducted this month found that 96 percent of respondents believe that campaign contributions can influence a judge’s decision, and 93 percent said that judges should not hear cases involving a major contributor. 84 percent supported requiring that all contributions to a judges campaign be quickly disclosed and posted to a web site. 66 percent said they believe that there are two systems of justice in the U.S. — one for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else.

Cleaning up Michigan’s elections could be achieved through some simple reforms, according to MCFN. All that’s needed is for the legislature to amend the Michigan Campaign Finance Act so that it includes electioneering communications.

Electioneering communications should be defined to include any broadcast, cable, Internet or telephonic communication that features the name or image of a candidate for state or local office within 60 days of an election involving that candidate. Any committee or corporation that sponsors electioneering communications must disclose the donors whose funds the sponsor is aggregating to pay for its communications. Any committee or corporation that is a contributor to a sponsor of electioneering communications, or a contributor to a contributor, must, in turn, report its donors. No allowance can be given for the “Russian doll” strategy of hiding donors inside shells.

A package of election reforms introduced in the Republican-controlled legislature this month requires more reporting from candidate committees and ballot initiative committees but doesn’t address disclosure for issue ads at all.

As political will for a change in campaign financing mounts, it remains to be seen whether legislators respond to the pressure. Michigan Campaign Finance Network executive director Rich Robinson says such a move could change the business of politics quickly.

“I believe some mega-donors would quit the game if they wouldn’t have anonymity,” he said. “I think other donors’ support would be a liability. Who wants to be known as the drone carrying water for David Koch?”

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