Lawmaker to introduce bill on Whitmer campaign finances

Lawmaker to introduce bill on Whitmer campaign finances

A Michigan state senator is drafting legislation that would eliminate a recall loophole the governor has used to exceed the ordinary limit on campaign fundraising.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, is preparing to introduce a bill closing a campaign finance loophole used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to rake in millions of dollars of campaign cash, in excess of normal limits.

Because Whitmer has been subject to recall petitions over the past two years, she argues these additional contributions are legal under declaratory rulings made by Michigan’s Secretary of State in the 1980s.

“It has recently come to light that Michigan’s governor has misused a nearly 40-year-old declaratory ruling to receive millions in out-of-state campaign contributions for her reelection campaign,” said Runestad. “This unorthodox flood of funds into one candidate’s campaign is a direct attack on measures set forth to ensure fair elections in this state.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Whitmer has been the target of heavy criticism for her policy response. Last year, she faced 20 recall efforts, none of which were successful in forcing a statewide recall election.

Thus far in 2021, Whitmer has faced 14 recall petitions, the first 13 of which were rejected for circulation by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers. The most recent petition, filed on July 30, remains active, awaiting a hearing from the Board. Its author was responsible for six of the prior failed recall petitions against Whitmer.

Despite the fact that none of the recall efforts have come anywhere close to succeeding, Whitmer says the mere existence of the recalls is enough to trigger an exemption for her campaign from the $7,150 limit on individual donations.

Under a 1984 ruling by Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, “the contribution limits of section 52 of the Campaign Finance Act” are not “applicable to contributions made to an officeholder who is the subject of a recall election.” Specifically, “the officeholder who is the subject of the recall vote is not a ‘candidate for state elective office’ which is a prerequisite to the application of the contribution limits set forth in section 52.”

Some have argued this exemption does not apply to Whitmer because the recall efforts against her do not have a serious chance of success, and that in any event Austin lacked the power to authoritatively interpret the statute. “It is absurd for anyone to believe that any of the proponents of these recall petitions against Governor Whitmer were actively seeking a recall election,” the Michigan Freedom Fund wrote in a recent complaint lodged with the Secretary of State.

But Whitmer believes she is well within her legal rights to take advantage of the exemption. “We need reform when it comes to political contributions but as long as the rules are what they are,” she said, “I’m going to run hard, just like I do everything when I set my mind to something.”

Whitmer has amassed a $10 million campaign war chest – unprecedented in Michigan history in its size. Individual donations as large as $250,000, nearly 35 times the ordinary limit, have propelled Whitmer to fundraising totals three times the amount her predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder, raised in his 2014 re-election bid.

If Runestad gets his way, however, the exemption may not be around much longer. Runestad’s proposed changes would limit contributions to elected officials facing recalls and fortify campaign finance integrity. Under his plan, any money donated for a recall effort (above the gubernatorial campaign contribution limit of $7,150) would be returned to donors should a recall vote not take place. “It’s not fair for one candidate to skirt campaign finance laws while everyone else has to play by the rules. My bill would end these dishonest loopholes now,” Runestad said.

“This disingenuous interpretation of these declaratory rulings is a slap in the face to campaign finance law, misleading to donors and, ultimately, is harmful to voters, who should be able to trust that their candidates are playing by the same rules and are competing fairly,” Runestad said. “Any funds raised to combat a recall effort should be accounted for separately from general campaign funds and returned to donors if a recall effort never materializes.”

Michigan law allows citizens to initiate a recall effort against any state elected official (with the exception of judicial officers). However, recall petitions must meet rigorous requirements in order to force a statewide special recall election. First, the Board of State Canvassers must review the language of a recall petition to determine it is “factual and of sufficient clarity.” Only then can the petition be circulated. Subsequently, recall petitioners have just 60 days to gather signatures. The minimum number of signatures necessary is equal to 25% of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial general election — currently more than 1 million.

The efforts to recall Whitmer have cited a variety of grievances, from her actions to temporarily close businesses “not necessary to sustain or protect life” to her restrictions on “non-essential medical and dental procedures” in 2020. Although the vast majority of the petitions are related to Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, some focus on other topics, like gun rights and budget cuts.

For now, the governor continues to use these recall efforts to shatter fundraising records. But Runestad plans to have his bill ready to introduce by the end of August. If passed, the bill would level the financial playing field and close an outdated loophole in Michigan campaign finance law.

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