Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs SB 571 into law and it’s WAY worse than you probably thought


Yesterday afternoon while most of us were driving home from work or home getting ready for dinner, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 571 into law. It’s now Public Act 269 of 2015.

This legislation started out innocuously enough as a 12-page campaign finance reform bill that involved how funds are collected and distributed by organizations that manage “separate segregated funds”, funds that are limited to making contributions to, and expenditures on behalf of, candidate committees, ballot question committees, political party committees, political committees, independent committees, etc.

The bill was introduced in late October. However, in the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session and right before they adjourned for the year, Republicans added over 40 pages of new stuff to the bill, didn’t hold a single hearing, didn’t solicit any input from the public at all, and told their caucus members that there was nothing to worry about and that they should feel totally comfortable voting for it without reading the extra 41 pages of stuff. This was good because they only had 15 minutes to do so before the vote was held.

So what happened to the innocuous campaign finance reform bill? A whole lot of mischief was added to it at the last minute during the late night session. Here are some of the things it does:

  • Prohibits public bodies like government agencies (think librarians and Secretary of State staff) from distributing information about ballot proposals 60 days before the election.
  • Elimination of a February filing deadline for independent and political committees and reestablishment of the requirement to file an annual report covering the period from October 21st through December 31st.
  • Effective doubling of the amount of money PACs can donate to candidates for the second time in two years, effective quadrupling the limit since 2013.
  • Prohibits corporations from collecting contributions from its employees to a union’s PAC.

Let’s take a look at these one at a time.

The first one, of course, is the one that raised the loudest hue and cry from a wide assortment of groups. Librarians – who have been quick to inform me that they are actually quite politically active, thank you very much, something that I am eminently happy about – launched a petition drive. County clerks across the state spoke out vociferously about it. Here’s a particularly relevant statement on this part of the new law:

Chris Hackbarth, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, said if the bill doesn’t get fixed, it will be a complete gag order on local officials.

“The way it’s signed, communication is shut down. I don’t know any community that would feel comfortable having a meeting broadcast on their public access channel,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”

Even many Republicans began to speak out about it, most of whom actually voted FOR the legislation without actually reading and comprehending the additional 41 pages of material, despite being alerted to the problems by Democrats in the legislature. I wrote about one of them, Dave Pagel, who had this to say:

SB 571 came back to the House and we were asked by our leadership to quickly accept the changes which, we were assured, were only minor. One of the House Democratic members raised concerns that there were around 40 pages added to this bill and no one had time to read them. As it turns out, his concerns were merited.

I am embarrassed to say that I, along with my Republican colleagues, voted “yes” on SB571 without knowing about the significant changes that were made to it. I trusted the House leaders because this came up late in the evening after many hours of session. This is the first time anything like this has happened during my tenure. I am demanding an explanation – which has yet to come – about why this happened and who was responsible. I have written the Governor, asking him to veto this bill so that we can take this language out. I have contacted several other Representatives who feel the same way I do. […]

The language in SB571 will be a detriment to both the voters and to those entities making ballot proposals. I will do whatever I can to stop SB571 as it stands. Even if it is signed by Governor Snyder, I will work to get this changed by further legislation.

Rep. Pagel wasn’t alone.

The most nefarious effect of this particular element of this bill is to amplify the impact of money in politics because it silences objective sources of information for the entire two-month period before an election, ceding the floor to those who spend astonishing amounts of money on a media blitz of radio and television commercials, mailings, billboards, web ads, and anything else they can think of to sway your vote.

The second item, changes in campaign finance reporting deadlines, etc., fails to address another money-in-politics multiplier. Here’s Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s Rich Robinson’s take on it:

Senate Bill 571 eliminates February quarterly reports for PACs and superPACs, but it reestablishes the requirement to file an annual report covering the period from October 21st through December 31st. The scheduling changes in SB 571 restore campaign finance reporting for PACs and superPACs to previously existing schedules.

However, SB 571 fails to address one of the major anomalies of Michigan campaign finance reporting: the reporting of independent expenditures. In the case of special elections, any independent expenditure that is made subsequent to the last scheduled pre-election report must be reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections within 48 hours.

In the case of regularly scheduled elections, independent expenditures that occur subsequent to the last scheduled pre-election report do not have to be disclosed until the first regularly scheduled post-election report.

In the case of Michigan’s 2014 November elections, millions of dollars-worth of independent expenditures were first disclosed months after Election Day.

Basically what this means is that independent expenditures will now be able to remain secret until AFTER the election so that you won’t know who is pumping money into a particular issue or candidate, information that may well impact your vote, until after you have actually voted.

The third item – the doubling of the amount of money people and PACs can give to candidates – is best laid out by the Detroit Free Press‘s Brian Dickerson (and I highly recommend reading his entire piece):

Three weeks after Michigan state legislators adopted a heavily amended campaign finance bill in the final, frenzied hours of their 2015 session, even some of those who voted for the legislation are unpleasantly surprised to learn what’s in it.

High on the list of surprises is a provision that raises the amount a political action committee can donate to pay for expenses incurred in any statewide campaign, effectively doubling the maximum donation — for the second time in as many years — from $68,000 to $136,000.

The biggest mystery in SB 571 lies in the provision doubling the amount donors may contribute to defray a statewide candidate’s expenses in a single election campaign. Most lawmakers insist they were unaware that the bill authorized such a change — perhaps because it appears to leave the existing ceiling on such contributions unchanged.

Until 2013, individual donors could contribute only $3,400 per cycle, with PACs permitted to give 10 times as much. Snyder and Republican lawmakers sustained intense but short-lived blowback two years ago when they muscled through legislation raising those ceilings to $6,800 and $68,000, respectively

SB 571 doesn’t explicitly raise those limits. But it authorizes candidates to accept up to $68,000 from a PAC in one campaign cycle and apply it retroactively to expenses incurred in a previous cycle — even if the same PAC wrote a previous $68,000 check in the heat of that campaign.

So a candidate who didn’t want voters to know how much money he was getting from, say, the Committee to Legalize Pot could cash a $68,000 check from that organization a few weeks before the 2016 election, accept a second donation for the same amount a week after that election, and use both checks to pay off the $136,000 credit card bill he ran up during Campaign ’16.

Dickerson spoke to a couple of Republicans to ask them if they knew this was in the bill they voted for. Neither did and the truth is that it’s highly likely that almost none of Republican legislators who voted for it did.

Finally, we have the prohibition on corporations collecting money from employees’ paychecks for union political action committees. If you want to talk about “intrusive government overreach” and “government interference in private companies and individuals”, this element of PA 269 is the poster child for that conversation. This prohibition isn’t aimed at taxpayer-funded entities like schools or government agencies. It literally prohibits ANY company, privately-held or otherwise, from making payroll deductions that will end up in the hands of unions even if the employee agrees to it and/or the union and the company have a contract to do so.

The rationale for this being given by Republicans and anti-union groups is, of course, asinine and bogus. Here’s an example and it’s a true eyeroll statement:

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative political organization with ties to the wealthy DeVos family in west Michigan, celebrated the governor’s signing of the bill.

“It’s one of those reforms that I think is positive for the state and allows employers to stay focused on their core business,” said Greg McNeilly, chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund and a GOP political consultant.

The law ends a longstanding practice of labor unions getting companies to pay for the administration of collecting union PAC contributions, McNeilly said.

“Why should unions force employers to collect their political dues?” he asked.

There’s so much wrong with these three sentence that it boggles the mine. First of all, nobody is “forcing” employers into doing this. It’s usually part of the contract negotiations that both employers and workers agree to.

Second, the idea that this is somehow a distraction for employers that prevents them from “staying focused on their core business” is laughable to the point that I can’t believe McNeilly made it with a straight face.

Finally, the reference to “paying for the administration” of these payroll deductions is LOLingly ROFLable. A payroll deduction is done by a computer. It’s automatic, electronic, and consumes almost no resources whatsoever. When the Republicans did this same thing with teachers back in 2012, here’s how the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency described the financial impact:

State: The bill would have no fiscal impact on the State.

Local: The bill likely would not result in either net costs or savings to districts. Payroll deductions for union dues are automated in the vast majority of districts. The removal of existing deductions from payroll systems would take some administrative staff time, but on the other hand, districts would be able to eliminate the processing of future dues from the automated payroll systems.

An earlier analysis of that same bill said the same thing in different words:

The bill would have no significant fiscal impact on school districts. Individual school districts would likely only see a minimal savings from this change. The process for payroll deductions for union dues and service fees is largely automated, so there is very little work school districts must go through on a regular basis. Moreover, some collective bargaining agreements provide that the union is to reimburse (at least in part) the school district for administering a payroll deduction. There could be some initial work, if the bill were enacted, to process that change, but any ongoing savings would be minimal.

In other words, this part of PA 269 is yet another Republican solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and serves only to screw over unions, make it harder for them to do business, and do damage to a major source of funding for their political adversaries. It’s not pro-business, it’s blatant union-busting.

The most disgusting part about Gov. Snyder’s signing this bill into law is that he did it with a public acknowledgement that it is flawed and an affront to free speech and democracy. He sent a letter to state legislators that is the state level equivalent to a presidential signing statement, asking legislators to send him a new bill that fixes he one he just signed into law. “I am calling on the Legislature to enact new legislation to address those concerns,” he said.

Given the makeup of the current legislature, I, for one, am not holding my breath that this will happen.

I should probably mention that the bill does at least one good thing: it requires robocalls to identify who is paying for the call with contact information. Given all the egregious things that the bill does, that small tidbit is the very definition of crumbs from the feast being doled out to the citizens of Michigan.