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Michigan Legislature, heal thyself

Since convening 10 months ago, the current Michigan Legislature has cracked down on local minimum wage requirements, authorized commercial quadricycles to serve alcohol, and even addressed (however inadequately) the chronic underfunding of state roads.

But state lawmakers have so far ignored what has all the appearances of a five-alarm fire in their own kitchen: a credibility deficit that earned Michigan a last-place finish in a national study of governmental ethics and transparency.

In a survey conducted by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and its nonprofit partner Global Integrity, Michigan earned failing grades in 10 of 13 measures of governmental accountability. Besides finishing dead last in four categories (executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, and pension fund management), the Great Lakes State posted the lowest cumulative score – just 50.5 out of 100 possible points, lowest among the 11 states that received failing grades.

The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions about transparency and accountability. Besides pension management and each branch’s overall accountability, the ethics report card looked at public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, and ethics enforcement agencies.

Michigan’s abysmal showing won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the incumbent Legislature’s reflexive secrecy and hostility toward greater public disclosure of political spending, potential conflicts of interest, and the inner workings of government. Remember, Michigan’s governor and Legislature are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

On the rare occasions when elected officials like Secretary of State Ruth Johnson have taken steps to assure more timely disclosure of what special interests are spending to influence elections and the legislative and rule-making processes, lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, have countered with measures to preserve the anonymity of their party’s benefactors.

The public’s distrust for Lansing’s elected leaders was made manifest last spring, when voters rejected the cumbersome road funding formula state lawmakers outlined in Proposal 1 by a historic margin. The Center for Public Integrity scorecard reveals the well-founded reasons for that mistrust, and suggests the steps lawmakers will have to take to dispel it.

It remains to be seen whether legislators will address the public’s crisis of confidences in Lansing’s integrity with the same urgency they brought to quadricycle liquor sales.

– The Detroit Free Press