What Jack Abramoff could teach Michigan

Published 2:27 am Friday, March 24, 2006

By Staff
Brazen superlobbyist Jack Abramoff may have refined the techniques of what the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (CFN) calls “pay-for-play politics,” but corruption is as old as politics itself.
Abramoff ignited widespread outrage, but at root we the people seem content to accept his fundamental offense - buying and selling public policy.
Budget bills bristle with inserted pet pork barrel “earmarks,” which is why President George W. Bush seeks a line-item veto. Earmarks' poster child is the now-infamous Bridge to Nowhere introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Indian tribes that own casinos pay for protection to keep other tribes sidelined from the action. And why can't Uncle Sam get the same discount for buying prescription drugs that Sam's Club gets?
This poisonous one-hand-washes-the-other political culture will probably be addressed by Congress in some fashion. Fewer junkets on lobbyists' dime. A slowing of the revolving door between public service and using the resume built to lobby the public servants by extending the pause from one year to two.
In Michigan, regulations governing lobbying, ethics and campaign finances are less stringent than Washington. Officials here are talking about reform, but it's an election year and they might just be talking past each other for re-election style points.
One gap the CFN identifies is that lobbyists must report dining expenditures for officials that exceed $51 in a month, but they don't have to list travel and lodging expenditures unless they exceed $675.
Officeholders and administration appointees don't have to report any gifts they receive or trips they take, a la Congress.
Michigan lacks a mandatory “cooling off” period between elected office and lobbying. With term limits, it's logical to wonder when an officeholder is working for his constituents or cementing future employment prospects.
The Center for Public Integrity identifies Michigan as one of only three states that do not require personal financial disclosure for elected officials, compounded by the fact that abstaining from voting is a matter of personal conscience.
Since 2000, some $20 million has been spent for candidate campaign ads masquerading as “issue ads,” according to the CFN, which points out that these expenditures are unreported and unregulated.
In each of the last three state election cycles, then, more than half the money in the biggest statewide campaigns has been off the books.
As far as enforcement, the state Board of Ethics is advisory only.
Campaign finance is overseen by a department led by a partisan elected official.
The CFN recommends a non-partisan ethics commission with investigative and enforcement authority and penalties severe enough to motivate politicians to comply with the law.
The bottom line is that special interest groups' concerns will be heard. Will yours?