Thanks to Public Act 252 of 2013, passed by Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature and signed into law by Snyder in late December, we can look forward to elections in 2014 and beyond more thoroughly dominated by money from the rich, with the identities of contributors to “issue” ads hidden from the public.
PA 252 began as Senate Bill 661, introduced by Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R-West OIive), the majority floor leader. While only .01 percent of Michigan residents made the maximum contributions to state and local candidates, the bill doubled this amount, from $3,400 to $6,800 for statewide candidates; $1,000 to $2,000 for state Senate candidates; $500 to $1,000 for state House candidates; and $500-$3,400 to $1,000-$6,800 for local candidates, depending on the size of the municipality. Only California and New York now have higher contribution limits. The bill also doubled the limit on political action committee donations to a candidate from $34,000 to $68,000, the highest in the nation. These limits are to be raised every four years to keep up with inflation.
And then came the matter of “issue” ads. Most of these are TV attack ads worded to ask the viewer to contact the targeted candidate or elected official and seek to alter their behavior. A 2004 administrative ruling by then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, a Republican, barred the disclosure of contributors to “issue” ads, and they became a favorite vehicle for money laundering. More than 75 percent of the spending in 2012 races for the Michigan Supreme Court and Oakland County Circuit Court was for these “issue” ads bankrolled by dark money, as well as 50 percent of 2010 spending on statewide races.
The use of “issue” ads in judicial races is absurd because judges can’t be lobbied. They are supposed to decide cases by applying the law to the facts at hand. The State Bar of Michigan asked Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, another Republican, to reverse Land’s decision and require donor disclosure for “issue” ads in judicial elections. Johnson denied this request, but on Nov. 14 announced that she would seek an administrative rule change to require disclosure of “issue” ad donors for all elections. Within hours, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee, on a 3-1 party line vote, amended SB 661 to prohibit such a change.
Our campaign finance system is largely one of legalized bribery. Most of the money comes from business interests, and the purpose of their campaign contributions is to pass laws and regulations that enable them to make more money, defeat proposed laws and regulations that cost them money, and obtain government contracts and subsidies. The public interest never enters into the equation, and the people need to know who is bankrolling campaigns and what they want for their money.
Snyder ran for governor in 2010 as a proponent of transparency and accountability, saying that those who pay for “issue” ads should be publicly identified. But he failed to practice what he preached, refusing to identify the donors to his New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify (NERD) Fund. His lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, cast the tie-breaking vote when six Republican senators voted against SB 661.
The infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows unlimited corporate election spending, also allows states to require the disclosure of campaign donors. Supporters of SB 661 whined that “issue” ad donors should remain anonymous to protect them from harassment or intimidation for taking unpopular political positions. But if advocacy is part of free speech, so is accountability, which can include boycotts, a commercial backlash and public scorn. If a business loses customers because they disagree with its political views, then that is a risk it has to take.
In signing the bill into law over numerous calls for a veto, Snyder said it will “bring an unprecedented level of transparency and openness to the state’s political system,” a lie that insults the intelligence. This was too much for even the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press, which endorsed Snyder in 2010 and opposed the 2012 Proposal 2, which would have prevented “right-to-work.” In a Jan. 5 column, Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson said, “If Snyder so willingly trashes ideals he claimed for himself, he simply can’t be trusted.”
Will we find out on Nov. 4 that Snyder is a one-term governor? Wait and see.