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Disappointing: Governor signing SB 661

It is very disappointing the Governor has signed Senate Bill 661. This very bad amendment to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act will extend the era of dark-money campaigns in our state, and probably lead to even less transparency and accountability in Michigan politics than we have seen over the last decade.

There is no question the governor knows exactly what is at stake, since he has been both a target and a beneficiary of phony issue-ads that were sponsored by anonymous donors. As a candidate for office, he spoke with lengthy clarity when he presented himself as a proponent of transparency and accountability.

There is no conflict between free speech and disclosure. As the Supreme Court of the United States said in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

The argument of “disclosure as intimidation” is an empty one. That was Justice Clarence Thomas’ claim in his dissent in Part IV of Citizens United, and he lost that argument by a vote of 8-1. The contention that some of the most powerful interest groups and individuals in the state have any legitimate fear of retribution is ludicrous. They wear their faux fear of victimhood shabbily. As Justice Antonin Scalia has said, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

To suggest disclaimers on robo-calls will bring meaningful improvement in campaign transparency is just very weak dissembling. Michigan voters can look forward to hearing that they have been called by the Committee for God and Country, Commonsense Advocates, or some equally benign-sounding and meaningless committee names. Most disclaimers will reveal nothing about who is sponsoring the electioneering messages we get by phone — just as the disclaimers on phony TV issue ads reveal nothing about the funders’ identities.

The governor’s signature on SB 661 will greatly limit Michigan citizens’ ability to make informed decisions about most of the electioneering messages they see and hear. Most damaging is the fact that his action will extend unaccountable electioneering in state judicial campaigns. Since 2000, over half of all spending on Michigan Supreme Court campaigns has been undisclosed, including three-fourths of all spending in the 2012 campaign. The effect of that is to undermine trust and confidence in the impartiality of our state’s highest court, and possibly compromise litigants’ due process rights to an impartial court hearing, because participants in cases can’t know whether their opponent in litigation has been a major campaign finance supporter of the justices deciding their case. Michigan’s last two Supreme Court campaigns have been the most expensive and least transparent in the nation, and that is a disgrace — a disgrace that will be perpetuated by the Governor’s signature.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network will continue its mission to inform the citizens of Michigan about the role of dark money in our political campaigns. It is very sad the Governor has chosen not to support transparency and accountability. His signature on SB 661 makes him the ultimate enabler of dark money in Michigan politics. He is diminished for having signed the bill into law.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and public education on money in Michigan politics.

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