Michigan House introduces new transparency bills

New bipartisan ethics legislation in the Michigan House would require financial disclosures from lawmakers and top state officials and prohibit them from becoming lobbyists for two years after their tenure.

(Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

The bills, introduced Wednesday, are part of a broader package that supporters say is designed to boost transparency, heighten ethical standards and improve accountability. It is a top priority for leaders in both parties in the coming weeks.

Some initiatives, such as opening the Legislature and governor's office to public-records requests and requiring a supermajority to pass legislation in post-election "lame-duck" sessions, were approved earlier this year and are pending in the Senate. Other bills are new, including a proposed requirement that money spent to lobby legislative and gubernatorial staff is disclosed.

Republicans and Democrats in the GOP-led House also want to create legislative ethics committees and to authorize each chamber, with a two-thirds vote, to suspend the salary and expense allowance of a legislator who acts unethically or is excessively absent.

Michigan is one of just two states where lawmakers pass and reject laws without the public knowing about their personal finances. Other state elected officials do not have to file disclosures either, though governors typically voluntarily release portions of their tax returns while gubernatorial candidates in the last election voluntarily issued versions of financial disclosure statements.

Under the legislation, legislators and high-ranking executive branch officials would have to disclose their finances. But lawmakers' forms would not be made public until they leave office. Instead, an oversight panel would have the information and keep tabs on potential conflicts of interest.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, a Farwell Republican, said some current rules are "bizarre" and show why people are losing faith in government.

"We must do better and hold ourselves to a higher standard," he said in a statement.

"The people are asked too often to simply trust that elected officials are acting in the public interest and holding themselves accountable. That's a failed, unacceptable system," said House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, a Democrat from Washtenaw County's Scio Township.

It was not immediately clear how the bills, once passed, will fare in the GOP-controlled Senate.