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Lobbying cooling off period, campaign finance bills get first hearing

Michigan State Capitol dome interior
Wikipedia Media Commons
Michigan State Capitol dome interior

Some Michigan bills in a legislative package known as the “BRITE Act,” aimed at ensuring greater accountability from elected officials, received a first committee hearing Thursday.

One bill in the package would give the state greater power to stop suspected campaign finance violations as they’re happening. The other bill works to prevent lawmakers from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office.

The campaign finance bill would work by allowing the Secretary of State to ask a court for an injunction against suspected violations once they receive a complaint. Supporters of the bill worry that without that ability, it’s hard to stop any violations until long after they've occurred.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she expects to see fewer violations if the bill passes.

“You know, the goal of greater enforcement power is two-fold. One, to create a greater deterrent for violations, which I think would probably be the most immediate and significant effect. And then to, of course, provide greater enforcement teeth on the other end, if there are violations,” Benson said during a House Ethics and Oversight Committee testimony Thursday.

Benson said plans for a newer version of the bill would give her office subpoena power in investigations as well.

Committee Minority Vice Chair Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) said the legislation is a start, though he had concerns about language in one of the bills that would require all cases to be heard in the Ingham County Circuit Court in the Lansing area.

“Is it onerous on the defendant to say, ‘Alright, well you have to drive to Ingham County to defend yourself?’ Well, it shouldn’t be,” Kunse told reporters after Thursday’s hearing.

Meanwhile, sponsors of the lobbying cooling-off period said it’s a common practice for lawmakers to immediately go into lobbying after their term ends.

The concern is whether that creates the appearance of something influencing their vote.

Bill sponsor, Representative Kara Hope (D-Holt), said that erodes public trust.

“It looks like, instead of voting with their constituents in mind, instead of acting as public servants, they’re acting on behalf of some other special interest,” Hope said.

Again, Kunse said he appreciates the legislation but likened it to a watered-down version of a Republican-introduced bill. Whereas Hope’s bill includes a one-year waiting period, the Republican proposal would make lawmakers wait two years before joining the lobby corps.

Kunse said he also dislikes exceptions in the bill, like lobbying for a state agency.

“The biggest lobbyists in the State of Michigan are the departments. Right? The biggest lobbyists in the State of Michigan are the Department of Ed, and the department of — all of them come in, they’re the ones that ask for the most money. So, no, we don’t need all these exemptions. So, no, I don’t think they go far enough. But it’s a start,” Kunse said.

Another part of the package that hasn't received a hearing yet would require nonprofit groups and political action committees affiliated with lawmakers to register with the state.

Thursday’s hearing took place on the heels of an announcement earlier this week that a former Michigan House Speaker is facing over a dozen felony charges related to allegedly misusing funds from his 501(c)(4) nonprofit and political action committees.

Critics of the BRITE Act question whether, as currently written, it would’ve stopped that alleged behavior from taking place.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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