Michigan quickly passes a controversial new campaign finance bill

Early this year, the Michigan state legislature scrambled to adopt an amendment-ridden campaign finance bill in the closing hours of its 2015 season. Three weeks after the bill passed the legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder signed that bill into law. Now, what at first appeared to be a done deal is stirring up controversy as critics – including legislators from Snyder's own party – have cried foul.

Provisions in the bill that some claim were hidden from them until just recently would, among other things, double the maximum donations political action committees can make toward campaigns. This claim and others have spurred a closer look at the law.

An embattled law
In the rush to adopt SB 571 before the House adjourned for the holidays last year, a number of important details were overlooked by those doing the voting. Rep. Dave Pagel, a Republican serving in his second term, was among them, the Detroit Free Press reported.

"It's troubling when you take a vote and later realize that you were ignorant of some facts you should have known," said Pagel.

Language barring public bodies from distributing information on bond and other ballot proposals in the 60 days prior to an election was disturbing to Pagel, as was the amendment – slipped into the bill at the last minute – that doubled the provision for PAC donations from $68,000 to $136,000.

As a sign of how quickly things moved, Sen. Mike Kowall, the sponsor of the original bill, wasn't aware of the contribution-expanding amendment until the Free Press asked him about it.

Legislators involved in passing the bill have since cried foul, claiming they were duped. Legislators involved in passing the bill have since cried foul, claiming they were duped.

The murky circumstances under which SB 571 was passed – not to mention the content of the law itself – have raised more than just eyebrows. Legislators and campaign finance reform advocates alike have found themselves in the unfamiliar position of agreeing on something. They have united, at least tenuously, in calling for more information about the bill's intent.

Snyder hasn't let the noise fall on deaf ears. 

"This legislation includes many important campaign finance reforms that protect the integrity of our election process," said Snyder, according to Michigan Live. "I understand there is confusion about how the bill impacts the use of public resources to disseminate factual information prior to an election. This provision needs to be clarified and I am working with my partners in the Legislature on a follow-up bill to address these concerns."

Looking at the fine print
While the means under which Michigan's newest attempt at election law compliance was passed may seem somewhat peculiar – House and Senate leadership apparently assuaged any concerns with assurances that the amendment was just more technical language, MI Live reported – its effects are easier to understand. 

In addition to the provision limiting municipalities from using public funds to disseminate local ballot proposal information prior to 60 days before it goes up for vote, there is language that does away with a February campaign finance filing deadline for political committees and support groups.

Another prevision requires those same organizations to file annual reports. There is also a provision that requires robocallers to identify their financial backers; and one that allows candidates to use campaign contributions to pay off previous election cycle debt. 

Still, while the bill does put some new measures in place to prohibit the proliferation of advertisement-flavored mass communications using public funds, accusations that it tampers with the democratic process continue to find a voice. 

"Arguments over the bill's intent and impact are sure to keep Michigan PACs on their toes."

"Senate Bill 571 is designed to keep voters in the dark about important issues in their community, including school millages and bonds to fund police and fire departments," said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, according to MI Live. "Because of Gov. Snyder's actions, local governments and school districts will not be allowed to pay for materials to educate voters on these issues."

In a letter to lawmakers, however, Snyder stood by the bill. The way he interprets it, SB 571 is primarily a way of protecting voters from attempts to influence them with language like "vote for" and "support," which can have a considerable effect on public opinion. 

With new changes to the bill possible, PACs operating in Michigan would be wise to stay abreast of these changes. Seeking out quality campaign finance assistance will help them stay above the shifting, politically-charged legislative environment.