When it comes to open government, Michigan is failing, big-time.
That's the assessment reached by something called the State Integrity Investigation, a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
An investigation of all 50 states found Michigan ranked a dismal 43rd overall.
"The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of each state's laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and openness. Experienced journalists graded each state government on its corruption risk using 330 specific measures," according to the group's website (stateintegrity.org). "The Investigation ranked every state from one to 50. Each state received a report card with letter grades in 14 categories, including campaign finance, ethics laws, lobbying regulations, and management of state pension funds."
Investigator Chris Andrews pulled no punches in his report detailing Michigan's ongoing problems.
"The campaign finance system here has more holes than I-94 after a spring thaw. Big spenders and special interests can easily shovel millions of dollars into election activities — secretly if they choose," Andrews notes. "The lobby law is so weak that it was nearly impossible to determine which companies were spending millions to oppose construction of a new bridge. And the financial disclosure system for state elected officials?
"Well, actually, there isn't one."
Those issues and others added up to Michigan receiving an overall score of 58 percent. Georgia did the worst among all states, getting a score of 49. At the other end of the bell curve was New Jersey, which earned top honors with an 89.
Saying that Michigan should be called the "Trust Us" State when it comes to transparency, Andrews noted that "reform efforts are frequently launched, sometimes debated, always shelved. Meanwhile, special interests continue to make greater use of loopholes that allow them to influence the system without leaving fingerprints on the money spent doing it."
"It appears we're living with an honor system in an environment where there isn't much honor," observed Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks campaign spending and lobbying records.
The scathing report (which can be found at stateintegrity.org) did reveal a few bright spots. The state received high marks for its budget process and internal auditing. Otherwise, though, the report card was mostly filled with Fs, including failing grades of lobbying disclosure requirements, ethics enforcement and management of the state's pension funds.
And when it comes to providing public access to information, the state gets a lowly D.
While campaigning for governor in 2010, Rick Snyder called for a series of reforms, He reiterated that call in this year's State of the State speech. But the Republican-controlled state Legislature has failed to push reform efforts.
"The Legislature fundamentally is a position between interest groups and the citizens," Robinson told Andrews, "and it's easier to just throw in your lot with the interest groups."
There was briefly talk of efforts to put a reform measure, in the form of an amendment to the state Constitution, on the state ballot this November. But, as our colleague Jack Lessenberry reports in his "Politics & Prejudices" column this week, that effort is being pushed back to 2014.
Of course, the Legislature could make that all a moot point by taking the initiative and enacting reforms itself. But, as Robinson says, with special interests basically calling the shots, don't hold your breath on that.