By Greg McNeilly -- Chairman, Michigan Freedom Fund
If voters’ faith in state government is a little bit shaken these days, it’s not hard to understand why.
Republican state representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat recently got busted (and then run out of office) for misusing taxpayer resources in a bizarre attempt to cover up an illicit affair.
Meanwhile, Brian Banks, a Democratic state representative from Detroit, is facing allegations he sexually harassed one of his staffers — a public employee — and then fired him for refusing his sexual advances.
Elsewhere in Lansing, Democratic state Sen. Virgil Smith is allegedly preparing an insanity defense after being arrested for pummeling his ex-wife, shooting at her with an assault rifle, and riddling her car with bullets.
Voters are left with more questions than answers, and more doubts than questions. What are these politicians up to? What did their respective leadership teams know and when did they know it? Why won’t they just be transparent and honest? Lansing’s got to do better.
This weekend, Republicans are convening on Mackinac Island for the 31st biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. They have an opportunity to come back to Lansing ready to do some real good. They should seize it.
Here are five bold ways they could get started:
■ Make the legislature and governor’s offices subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Democrats have accused Republicans in the House of hiding records surrounding Todd Courser’s abuse of taxpayer dollars.
On the other side of the aisle, it’s been years since Brian Banks, a Democrat, was first accused of sexually harassing a staff member and then firing him when his advances were rejected. We still have no idea what Democratic leadership knew or what they’ve done about it.
Virgil Smith claims he’s suffering from bouts of insanity. Have Senate Democrats ever noticed, remarked, or acted on his condition?
Lawmakers and their staffs are taxpayers’ employees. Taxpayers deserve to know what their employees are doing on company time.
■ It’s time to dramatically increase penalties for elected officials who fail to comply with the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.
When politicians like state Sen. Bert Johnson can ignore the legal penalties associated with repeated campaign finance violations (Johnson’s committee owes $6,000 from eight different violations), it’s a good indication the penalties don’t go far enough.
If we expect Lansing politicians to be fully transparent with voters about who’s funding their campaigns, it’s time campaign finance law got sharper teeth.
■ Today, lobbyists in Michigan file financial reports twice per year. They should file them weekly, and those reports should be accessible electronically.
Legislation often moves through the House and Senate at a breakneck pace. This can leave voters wondering who is backing bills and what they’re spending to make it happen.
Weekly reporting on who is lobbying whom, how they’re spending their time, and how they’re spending their money will give voters the transparency they need to keep their elected officials truly accountable.
■ It’s long past time lawmakers break the cycle of government waste and end the parasitic process of government agencies spending tax dollars lobbying for more tax dollars. Let’s ban the use of tax dollars for lobbying expenses.
■ Finally, it’s time Lansing publish all state contracts on the Internet. Make the database accessible, understandable, and searchable so taxpayers know how their money is being spent.
Five bold ideas for a more transparent state government. Call it the Lansing Contract for Accountability. Call it the right thing to do. It won’t restore voters’ trust in government overnight — but call it a good start.
Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Article originally appeared in The Detroit News.