Report from NYU's Brennan Center Finds Michigan's Campaign Finance Laws Lacking, Urges Reforms

March 15, 2007

For Immediate Release
Thursday, March 15, 2007

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Jaclyn Kessel (646) 452-5637 (o) / (508) 951-9737 (c)

Report from NYUs Brennan Center Finds Michigans Campaign Finance Laws Lacking, Urges Reforms

National Think Tank Urges Full Disclosure of Phony Issue Ads, Ban on Soft Money and Improvements in Public Financing

New York Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a new report finding that Michigans campaign finance system is broken and badly in need of reform.

The report, Campaign Finance in Michigan, is the third of five studies of campaign finance systems in the Midwest to be released by the Brennan Center. The study finds that sham issue ads advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate are creating massive opportunities for special interest groups to corrupt Michigans political process.

Spending on campaign commercials disguised as issue ads has exploded in Michigan over the past ten years.  According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, over $15 million in undisclosed, unregulated special interest money made its way into Michigans gubernatorial race last November through thinly veiled issue advertisements, said Suzanne Novak, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center and the lead author of the report.

These ads are making a mockery of Michigans campaign finance system and opening the door to corruption of the political process, said Novak.

As of December, 2006, the report finds, 17 states had laws regulating communications timed to influence elections. The report documents the impact of Michigans failure to adopt similar legislation. The result is clear: huge sums spent on campaign advertising are exempt from disclosure requirements. To this day the public remains in the dark about the financing of electioneering ads in Michigan, said Novak.

In addition to regulating sham issue ads, the report recommends that Michigan take action to ban soft money and update its public financing system.

Specifically, the report found that individuals, labor unions, and corporations may donate unlimited amounts of money to Michigans political parties and most PACs; under Michigans current disclosure system, much of that money will never be reported. Unreported soft money contributions rob the public of any meaningful opportunity to understand the links between organizations and the politicians that keep them in business, stated Novak.

The report concluded that Michigans public financing system is obsolete, citing woefully low spending limits leading many gubernatorial candidates to opt out.

Novak noted that last year, for the first time, both major party gubernatorial candidates declined to participate in the public financing system, and went on to raise over $50 million. Had they accepted public financing, the candidates would have been limited to spending $2 million. Candidates need an incentive to opt in. We cant expect them to take public financing if it means unilaterally disarming against a well funded opponent, said Novak. 

The Brennan Center recommended that Michigan implement a public financing system for all statewide, legislative, and judicial campaigns, with increased spending limits and grants sufficient to enable candidates to run viable campaigns.

Local advocates welcomed the Brennan Centers report and urged the Governor and Legislature to act on its recommendations.

“A campaign finance regulatory system should set limits on what special interests put into campaigns and demand disclosure of who is giving what to whom. Michigan’s campaign finance system does neither,” said Rich Robinson, Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

“The Michigan Legislature needs to get to work on common-sense campaign finance reforms so we can restore the notion of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”