Live from Lansing: the Latest Attempt to Undo Campaign Finance Law

By Eric Mosher
Public Interest Associate

The Michigan House is primed to take up SB 661, a bill that passed the Senate last month and threatens to open elections in Michigan to more dark money and less oversight. The bill would make significant changes to the 1976 Michigan Campaign Finance Act, making it easier for big money from special interests to influence Michigan's democratic process.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), would double contribution limits for individuals and for political action committees, or PACs. Far from upholding free speech, Sen. Meekhof’s bill would drown out the millions of Michiganders who cannot afford to make multi-thousand dollar contributions. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, only 820 Michiganders made max donations to Gov. Snyder or to his opponent, Virg Bernero.

S.B. 661's attempt to remove maximum contribution limits would only benefit a few hundred Michiganders, and would weaken the political voice of the remaining 9 million. It would provide a hand-out to the state’s wealthiest special interests and lobbies, and would do nothing for everyday Michiganders.

Sen. Meekhof’s bill also seeks to keep dark money dark. Although the House version of Sen. Meekhof’s bill includes an amendment that would require disclaimers for candidate-centric issue advertisements—tools that private funders use to influence public elections by implicitly urging a vote for or against specific candidates—that air within 30 days of an election, the bill would not require disclosure of funders.

Candidates in last year’s Supreme Court election reported $4 million in individual expenditures, compared to an additional $18 million in undisclosed spending that went to candidate-specific issue ads. Sen. Meekhof’s bill would provide us with no way of knowing who is spending how much against whom. When transparency is taken out of the democratic process, powerful and wealthy interests wield more influence over our elections.

Limits on campaign finance exist to protect the voices of everyday citizens, and uninhibited campaign spending frays the fabric of democracy. When our elected officials depend more on the opinions of their funders than on those of their constituents, they have no incentive to do what’s right for their districts while in Lansing. And when a few special interests can bankroll entire campaigns, politicians listen to those few bankrollers, rather than to the thousands of folks back home who voted them into office.

Sen. Meekhof’s amendment to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act is bad for democracy and bad for Michigan. A handful of well-funded individuals, corporations, and lobbies should not be able to wield more influence and authority the majority of Michiganders, and we must enforce stringent disclosure requirements on issue ads and other incidence of dark money, so that voters know who is telling them what. We urge the Michigan House of Representatives to vote against S.B. 611, and to uphold transparency and accountability in Michigan’s democratic process.

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