Michigan GOP Serfdom Under Citizens United, and Beyond

images[5]Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette just disclosed a whopping $664,000 in annual personal income, with the vast bulk of it — an obscene $518,000, in investment income alone. The former congressman, state senator and appeals court judge is a poster child for the GOP vassaldom that is Michigan politics.

Republicans just love to talk and talk about the evils of money spent on programs for the benefit of struggling Michigan citizens, yet they remain stone-cold silent on the money spent on them.

One of Democracy Tree’s favorite non-profit watchdog groups, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, recently published their latest assessment on the avalanche of cash that influenced the outcomes of 2012 races and ballot initiatives in the state. The work of Rich Robinson at the MCFN is much more complicated than simply trolling the Secretary of State database — he painstakingly pieced together a spotty patchwork of dodgy reporting to various entities creating a big picture of just how bad things have become post Citizens United.

In the report, titled the 2012 Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance, we findimagesCAZWFKKC a wealth of disturbing data, and a clear trend that things are going to get worse — much, much worse. Robinson summed it up with “Record spending and a continuing trend of diminishing accountability for that spending were the major features of Michigan’s 2012 state election campaigns”.

At 108 pages, the annual report is comprehensive, but an easy read compared to the prodigious tome recently penned by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Betty Weaver — Judicial Deceit – Tyranny and Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court — a fact-rich political tell-all and weight-training device. Her book, a bargain (and substantial time commitment for the reader) at just under twenty bucks, is written largely on the same subject of dark money, but as it relates to the high court alone. (Sorry, not available in Spark or Cliff Notes). Although, the MCFN’s citizen’s guide may lack all the sordid tales Betty weaves of the actual corrupting power of money, it still paints quite a chilling picture.

Here’s a quick summary of the report’s findings:

Overall spending easily topped $200 million for state campaigns. Ballot committees raised over $154 million, while candidate committees for the Michigan House, education boards and the judiciary totaled $32.7 million. Reported independent expenditures by political action committees (PACs) and the state political parties added another $4 million.

Unreported candidate-focused television issue advertising in judicial campaigns and House campaigns added another $18.3 million to the total. Records of that spending were collected by MCFN from the public files of state television broadcasters and cable systems.

“We are victims of an anachronistic interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that allows unaccountable dark money to dominate our politics,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Citizens should have the right to know whose money is driving critically important election outcomes, so they can evaluate how campaign spending correlates to policy outcomes.”

Could things get any worse in Michigan than under Citizens United? Yes, they can — a new court challenge to campaign finance regulations may make Citizens United look like a timid preamble.

The 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling granted authority to states and to congress to limit the amounts of direct campaign contributions. Citizens United allowed for unlimited contributions for independent expenditures — meaning indirect money spent on issue ads. The Buckley ruling distinguised between those ads that ask the viewer for a particular vote and those that addressed an issue. The distinction has become so subtle between the two types of campaign ads that there is a possibility that the courts will find they create a double standard.

This fall the Supreme Court will consider a case from Alabama challenging the restrictions on amounts of contributions and the cap on aggregate contributions.  The case revolves around a businessman named Shuan McCutcheon who contributes to Republican candidates, PACs  and the RNC. On their own, each contribution remained within limits, but the total exceeded the FEC’s aggregate limit. McCutcheon’s attorney, James Bopp, plans to leverage this case to kick-open the door to multiple legal challenges to contribution limits. Bopp, already having a dog in this hunt from his work on Citizen’s United, put it this way:

“It provides the opportunity for the court, if it wants to, to opine and even re-examine how they treat contribution limits. We will certainly be providing a basis for the court to do that if they want to.”

If the recent high court decision to take a pass on hearing another challenge (United States v. Danielczyk and Biagi) to campaign finance regulations is any indication, Bopp certainly doesn’t have this one in the bag.

Let’s hope judicial prudence rules the day.

Amy Kerr Hardin





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