Opinion: Michigan should vote ‘yes’ on Proposal 1 for a more transparent government

Several studies place Michigan last in a number of government transparency and ethics metrics

click to enlarge Lansing State Capitol Building in Michigan under the cover of darkness. - McKeeDigital, Shutterstock
McKeeDigital, Shutterstock
Lansing State Capitol Building in Michigan under the cover of darkness.

If Michiganders are to make progress on the many issues facing our state — attacks on women, unions, our environment, and on working families — we must have confidence that our elected officials are acting in our best interests and not their own. To restore trust in government, to close the revolving door in Lansing, and to make meaningful progress today and for years to come, Michiganders should vote “yes” on Proposal 1.

Throughout our nation, trust in government institutions has reached dangerous lows. At the federal level, we’ve seen members of Congress profit from a plummeted stock market as COVID-19 rates skyrocketed. We later discovered that many of the very politicians who railed against critical relief for working families and small businesses quietly took advantage of this relief themselves through the Paycheck Protection Program.

As frustrated as we’ve become with the lack of transparency in D.C., Lansing is arguably worse. Several studies place Michigan last in a number of government transparency and ethics metrics.

Restoring trust in state government will not be easy. Michiganders have faced corruption scandals, lame duck maneuvers, mismanagement, and closed-door legislating. But we can do better as a state.

We can start by voting “yes” on Proposal 1, a constitutional amendment that would force state elected officials to disclose their financial conflicts of interest. As simple as this may seem, Michigan is only one of two states that does not currently require this sort of disclosure. Whether it be the movement to raise the minimum wage and protect unions, the fight against climate change, or efforts to secure reproductive healthcare rights for Michigan women, voters deserve to know if their elected officials have financial interests that may place them in conflict with these important priorities.

In addition to restoring trust in government, voters should vote yes on Prop 1 to help close the revolving door between special interest lobbying groups and Lansing political offices by improving our term limit laws. In our current system, far too many elected officials spend their first two terms in the State House learning how to legislate, and their last term looking to capitalize on their office by moving over to special interest groups. While term limit laws generally do a great job of ensuring that new blood is injected into our political system, Michigan’s term limit laws have promoted a revolving door culture and calcified lobbyists’ control over Lansing.

I saw this firsthand in my time as a community organizer in Detroit. When I worked to negotiate a community benefits agreement between the only oil refinery in the state and the surrounding community, a former Michigan House Representative sat across from us as we fought to secure funds to protect our community. During this time, many of the elected officials who we looked to for support were unfamiliar with our longstanding fight for environmental justice or of their power as legislators.

By reducing the total number of years politicians are allowed to serve in the legislature (from 14 to 12) while increasing the flexibility of that service, voters can preserve the spirit of term limit laws while addressing clear drawbacks. Today, whether it be in Washington, D.C., or our state capitols, closing the revolving door and empowering our elected officials to represent our interests is a crucial step to making progress on a host of important issues.

Lastly, Michiganders should approve Proposal 1 because an ethical and transparent government makes meaningful change possible. Our leaders have long understood that fighting for ethics and transparency has always been a necessary gateway for progressive change. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Other offenses violate one law while corruption strikes at the foundation of all law … The first requisite of successful self-government is unflinching enforcement of the law and the cutting out of corruption.”

By ensuring ethical government by mandating that politicians disclose their financial interests, helping close the revolving door in Lansing, and ensuring that elected officials are well-equipped to tackle complex problems, Proposal 1 will move us in the right direction.

Justin Onwenu serves as a senior advisor for the Voters for Transparency and Term Limit campaign. He has served as a community organizer in Detroit, law clerk for the UAW, and appointee on Gov. Whitmer’s Black Leadership Advisory Council.

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