The Republican-led Michigan Senate voted Thursday to strip campaign finance oversight from the secretary of state and have a bipartisan commission handle the functions instead, less than a month before a Democrat leads the office for the first time in two dozen years.
The main bill was sent to the GOP-led House to be considered as early as next week, following a similar move to restrict the powers of incoming Democrats in neighboring Wisconsin .
Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has not indicated whether he supports the campaign finance legislation or other measures that opponents contend would curb top Democrats elected last month.
The Senate also approved measures to implement a voter-approved constitutional amendment that allows same-day voter registration, over criticism that the legislation could conflict with the voters’ intent and should wait until after the frenetic lame-duck session.
Michigan’s secretary of state is responsible for enforcing the campaign finance law and issuing binding declaratory rulings related to political spending. The measure would shift campaign finance powers from incoming Democrat Jocelyn Benson to a new bipartisan Fair Political Practices Commission — modeled after the Federal Election Commission — with six members appointed by the governor after being nominated by the two major political parties.
Sen. Steve Bieda, a Warren Democrat, said Republicans “refuse to accept the consequences of the election,” criticizing what he said would be a “bogus” panel.
But the GOP sponsor, Sen. Dave Robertson of Grand Blanc, said 23 states have some form of a commission to enforce campaign-finance laws.
“This idea is not unique,” Robertson said, contending that the panel could work in bipartisan fashion.
Democrats, however, said Republicans never raised the idea until the party was about to lose control of the secretary of state’s office. Benson’s campaign platform included a proposal that corporations and unions make public their spending on so-called “issue” ads.
“Senate Republicans have voted to gut enforcement of Michigan’s campaign finance law,” she said in a statement. “Their hyper-partisan approach is in sharp contrast to my goal of collaborating across the aisle to take Michigan from worst to first in ethics and transparency. Their action is an affront to every taxpayer who wants and deserves a government that is transparent and accountable.”
Another bill approved Thursday would impose a five-year statute of limitations on criminal charges related to campaign finance.
The legislation to execute the voting-related ballot measure drew objections from Democrats and other proponents of the initiative. The GOP majority said there needs to be clarification of where people could register on Election Day because local clerks expressed concerns about potentially having to register them at crowded polling places.
FIRST POST from December 5, 2018
Republicans who control Michigan's Legislature voted Wednesday to advance a measure that strips campaign-finance oversight power from the Democratic secretary of state-elect.
They were poised to give lawmakers authority to stand up for GOP-backed laws if they think incoming the Democratic governor and attorney general are not adequately defending the state's interests.
The lame-duck moves followed within hours of similar efforts in Wisconsin , where lawmakers voted earlier Wednesday to shift clout to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weaken the Democrat replacing the GOP governor.
Michigan Democrats in January will jointly hold the governor, attorney general and secretary offices for the first time in 28 years, but the Legislature will continue to be controlled by Republicans.
A day after GOP lawmakers finalized an unprecedented maneuver to gut minimum wage and paid sick leave laws , a Senate panel passed legislation that would create the Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce the campaign-finance law rather than Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who ran in part on a pledge to advocate for election transparency.
Democrats called the bill a blatant power grab that would fly in the face of voters.
"At no point did voters say they wanted the rules manipulated. At no point did they say they wanted bills rushed through a hasty lame-duck session," said Patrick Schuh, state director for the liberal group America Votes. He questioned the timing, saying such a commission was not proposed until a Democrat is on the verge of leading the secretary of state office for the first time in two-dozen years.
Republicans defended the legislation, saying the six-member panel of three Democrats and three Republicans would initially be appointed by Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer. Eric Doster, a former long-time lawyer for the state GOP, testified that the commission would operate similarly to those in other states and said "now the time is right."
Other critics of the bill, however, contended that the commission would be ineffectual, saying its members would deadlock and be accountable to political parties that would submit a list of possible appointees to the governor.
Also Wednesday, the House planned to approve legislation that would empower the Legislature, House or Senate to intervene in any suit at any stage, a right already granted to the attorney general. It is seen as a maneuver to ensure that Republicans could support laws if Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Nessel are lukewarm about GOP-passed measures and drop appeals in cases the state loses.
Nessel, for example, has said she probably will not defend a law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.
Republicans disputed criticism that the legislation would undermine the role of the attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the bill is needed because "we've been shut out" in recent cases.
"We believe we have standing, and we want to make sure by law that we do because if somebody wants to ignore a law, we need to intervene because we made the law. It's passed and signed by the governor and it needs to be enforced," Meekhof said.
Democrats said the legislation would lead to increased legislative spending on lawyers.
"When we have roads to fix and schools to fund and health care plans to fund, how can you possibly justify setting up this parallel organization when we already have an attorney general and a process in place to take care of these issues?" said Rep. Christine Greig of Farmington Hills.