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When it comes to ethics, Michigan lawmakers are the worst of the worst

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Here's something you may not have known. We've all heard stories of crooked congressmen, some who have gone to jail for taking bribes or other corruption.

My personal favorite is Billy Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat who eight years ago just happened to have $90,00o in very cold cash tucked around the frozen veggies in his freezer. They say Billy may get out of the federal slam in 2023.

There have been many other less colorful crooks. But when it comes to ethical rules and standards for integrity, would you believe that Michigan is worse?

Far, far worse?

Well, we are. We are in fact the worst of the worst — and there's documented proof. Two years ago, the Center for Public Integrity completed its latest, data-driven investigation into ethical standards for lawmakers nationwide.

They looked at ethics codes, and the ability to enforce them. They looked at transparency and accountability and standards of integrity. And we were in a class of our own.

Not only did we get a failing grade in, well, nearly every area, we were the worst state in the union, hands down.

Few people know how bad things are, though state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof's attempts to prevent expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to cover legislators has gotten some attention, as has his successful fight to keep secret campaign contributions secret.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman from Flint, has been talking about this in Washington.

"It's been a surprise to people around here and back home — the fact that Michigan's standards are so pathetically low," he told me during a phone interview from Washington, where he was waiting around for the health care vote that never came.

Pathetically low might be an understatement. Michigan lawmakers routinely engage in shenanigans that would send a congressman to jail. State legislators can, for example, keep their outside income and financial transactions secret.

That means we can't even know who owns, or is trying to buy them — or their vote on a particular bill.

Our representatives can cheerfully vote the way a special interests lobbyist tells them to, walk away from the legislature when their term-limited time is up, and go to work for that lobbyist the next day.

They can, and many do, maintain secretive expense accounts, run as nonprofits or as "527s" after a section of the tax code. These can be used for "expenses" related to holding office. (Good luck finding out where the money in them comes from.)

Michigan lawmakers also can, and do, shake down their staff — people on the state payroll — for campaign contributions.

They can legally take gifts from lobbyists and accept "campaign contributions" from contractors who want to do business with the state. What that means, of course, is that any contractor who wants to do business with the state better slip the relevant legislators a wad of simoleons.

Kildee calls this a "transactional environment," a nice way of saying our legislature works something like a third-world country, or Al Capone's Chicago.

Sometimes, he told me, a bill — like the energy bill that took forever to pass last year — gets unaccountably held up for long periods of time. Why? Because some unknown party with skin in the game has to be taken care of, or bought off.

"And we will never find out."

Kildee, a pioneer in the Land Bank movement before succeeding his uncle Dale in Congress in 2013, is trying to do something about this. When Congress convened in January, he introduced a bill to force Michigan to clean up its act.

His bill, the "Make State Government More Open, Honest, and Transparent Act," (HB 554) would apply to all states, not just Michigan. The goal is to force them to adopt as least a high or standards of ethics, transparency, and accountability as congressmen are required to follow.

Actually, it has a clever enforcement mechanism. Unless states comply, they would lose the ability to administer programs that get federal money, which is probably pretty close to all of them; Washington would take away local control.

That's the last thing any state government wants. If we know anything, we know that federal oversight is required if we ever want Lansing to be anything other than an ethical sewer.

Our wonderful lawmakers have proven repeatedly that we can't count on them to clean this up themselves. Kildee's bill would — but sadly, its chances are between slim and none.

That's because it doesn't have a single GOP co-sponsor. That's necessary because, well, Republicans control everything.

Kildee, who may run for governor next year, knows that; he told me he initially put it out there to see what the reaction would be. He said that while he may make a run at finding some ethical Republicans, at the very least, he thought his bill "might shine a little light" on what's going on in Lansing.

Unfortunately, too few people seem to be interested in having the place fumigated.

Toxic water, coming to you

Soon, you may not have to live in Flint or even have corroded old pipes to have water you can't drink. Three years ago, people in Toledo and some nearby parts of Michigan were unable to drink their tap water for two or three days, thanks to toxins called microcystins, caused by dense blooms of blue-green algae in Lake Erie.

Nobody died, fortunately, and this hasn't happened since. But it almost certainly will. The algae blooms are worsened by phosphorous contaminating the water.

Some of this comes from fertilizer; some from massive amounts of manure produced by farm animals, some of them in immense, inhumane factory farms.

That doesn't mean all farmers are greedhead despoilers of the environment. Last week, I drove down to Tontogany, Ohio, to moderate a very interesting discussion with farmers who wanted to know what they could do to save the lake.

There were also some environmentalists there, including Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, who has studied algae in Lake Erie since he was a graduate student in 1971; he recently retired as the director of Ohio's Sea Grant program, one of many environmental programs Donald Trump wants to kill.

Reutter, who I've interviewed before, avoids politics; his focus is on pollution. Most people know that Lake Erie was pronounced "dead" and "hopeless" in the 1970s, but was cleaned up and came back to its old sparking self.

What's happening now, however, won't be so easy to reverse — and may be impossible to fix if Trump gets his way and zeroes out funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The difference between 1977 and 2017 is that back then, most of the problem was caused by improper sewage disposal.

Now, however, the algae blooms are the result of the chemical byproducts of farming, which will be much harder to lessen, let alone eradicate.

During the panel discussion, I noted that President Trump not only wants to kill Great Lakes restoration — he wants to cut funds for agriculture and slash the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. What if he actually does that?

Reutter's reply was matter-of-fact, and succinct. "It would mean that Lake Erie will no longer be able to produce safe drinking water for the 11 million people it now serves."

That, of course, is a trivial detail. Watch for the president's tweets to tell you what to think, and keep your eye on what really matters — that new $54 billion for the Pentagon.

Glad he's making someone happy.

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