Editorial Roundup: Michigan

Detroit Free Press. June 9, 2021.

Editorial: House GOP’s phony financial disclosure bill would keep voters in dark

Michigan is one of just two states that don’t require elected officials to disclose how much money they earn or where it comes from. That omission makes it difficult to know when public servants are enriching their own families or business partners at taxpayers’ expense. It also explains why the Center for Public Integrity ranks Michigan 50th out of 50 states when it comes to promoting governmental transparency and accountability.

Wednesday, the state House of Representatives approved a package of ethics bills Republican legislative leaders say will assure that Michigan lawmakers come clean with their constituents.

It’s a fraudulent claim. The bills the House adopted on a a mostly party-line vote would require lawmakers to disclose how they make their money, all right — but only to a secretive ethics committee of fellow lawmakers whose members could be removed at will by the House Speaker or the Senate Majority Leader. A bill sonsored by first-term Reps. Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.) and John Roth (R-Traverse City) would empower the new committee to investigate suspected conflicts of interest and recommend discipline for House members it deems guilty of unethical behavior. But four committee members hand-picked by legislative leaders would conduct their business behind closed doors, and the committee’s work product would be exempt from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

That’s not public disclosure; it’s a formula for legislative leaders to pressure members by threatening to reveal (or promising to overlook) conflicts of interest invisible to the public.

The secret and cumbersome process House Speaker Jason Wentworth brought to the floor Wednesday, is a diluted perversion of the ethics legislation a bipartisan group of lawmakers has championed in each of the Legislature’s last three sessions.

A bill sponsored by Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) and co-sponsored by more than half his House colleagues, including 12 Republicans, would require state lawmakers to report any significant source of household income in periodic public filings, just as members of the U.S. House and Senate file are required to. If a lawmaker abused his or her office to further a personal financial interest, the conflict of interest would be in the public record for any voter, law enforcement agency or political opponent to discover.

Under the Fink/Roth legislation, by contrast, financial information that might expose a lawmaker’s private interest in pending legislation would remain concealed from the public, the press and all but a handful of legislators. Details of a legislator’s financial dealings would be made public only if a majority of ethics committee members voted to sanction him or her for unethical conduct, or after the legislator had left office.

As in two previous legislative sessions, LaGrand’s bill is stranded in the House Elections and Ethics Committee, currently chaired by Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton). The obvious motive for rushing the weaker Fink/Roth bills through the House was to provide political cover for lawmakers who want to appear supportive of greater transparency without exposing their own business dealings to public scrutiny.

Republicans who support the secretive and cumbersome disclosure process outlined in the Fink/Roth bill argue that incremental steps toward greater accountability are preferable to the status quo. But a majority of House members already support the more robust version of disclosure championed by LaGrand. Why are Speaker Wentworth and Senate Majority Leaders Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) so reluctant to embrace the ethical rules lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and almost every other state legislature are bound by?

The phony disclosure provisions adopted by House Republicans aren’t “half a loaf”; they preserve a status quo that uniquely insulates Michigan lawmakers from public accountability. That simply won’t suffice in a state whose ethical standards for elected officials are already recognized as the nation’s worst.

Voters shouldn’t accept any substitute for real public disclosure, and neither should Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. If the state Senate’s Republican majority rubber-stamps the House’s cynical subterfuge, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should return it, without her signature, the same day.

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Traverse City Record-Eagle. June 10, 2021.

Editorial: Short-term rental regulation is a local issue

One size simply doesn’t fit all.

Yet, some Michigan lawmakers seem to think it should when we’re talking about the meteoric rise in short-term rental of homes in recent years popularized by online brokerages like Airbnb and VRBO.

Those lawmakers, including state Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City, and state Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, signed onto a pair of bills meandering through the legislature in Lansing that would, to one extent or another, curb or ban local regulation of short-stay rental homes.

They, and others, argue pockets of tight regulation by some local governments infringes on homeowners’ rights. They contend wholesale bans and other restrictions on nightly or weekly home rentals (like the ban on them in Garfield Township) prevent lawful uses of our homes.

And private property rights are an issue we often would find common ground with the lawmakers. For example, the wholesale ban on short-term rentals in Garfield Township seems a bit harsh.

Still, we can imagine a plethora of ways the issue could be addressed at the local government level without blanket edicts issued by the state.

Constituents of local governments certainly could engage in the local electoral process if they felt a majority of their neighbors would support policy changes. Heck, the regulations in place in most municipalities in the Grand Traverse region have garnered laborious debate and lobbying from all sides before they were enacted.

The rules in East Bay Township are a perfect example — the kind of compromise rules generated by a thorough process that weighed both the concerns of full-time residents against non-resident owners who appreciate the income short-term renters provide in the lake-peppered vacation hotspot.

That’s the real conundrum here.

Zoning, planning and property use questions are generally accepted as best set by folks who live in the places they affect.

The fact is, short-term renting of homes is oftentimes a high-traffic, high-noise commercial use, and most residential areas have somewhat strict, localized regulations on uses that aren’t purely homeowner or long-term tenant occupation. Many of us have experienced or know someone who has experienced the nightmare of living adjacent to a vacation rental that generates a constant stream of poorly-behaved partiers.

Those are the times that would send even the most libertarian homeowners among us begging for some reasonable rules to govern those businesses.

Think about all the restrictions that preserve the relative peacefulness and character of most of our neighborhoods.

There are rules that prevent someone from opening a commercial manufacturing facility in their garage. There are rules that prohibit de-facto junkyards in neighborhoods. There are rules that govern noise. There are rules that dictate where and what structures homeowners can build on their property.

Local governments regulate all kinds of things related to the use of private property.

So why should we wrest control of short-term rental rules away from local governments?

Yes, local planning and zoning officials — especially in the Grand Traverse region where 25 percent of all of Michigan’s short-term rentals are located — face complex questions about this blurring of the line between homes and businesses.

It’s hard to imagine a state law would fit our communities better than carefully-crafted local policies.

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Alpena News. June 10, 2021.

Editorial: Housing a puzzle we have to crack

Northeast Michigan, like many, many other places in the nation, has a very serious puzzle it has to solve: Housing.

As The News reported recently, Northeast Michigan lacks enough houses on the market to meet the demand, meaning some of our employers struggle to recruit workers from out of the area to move here and invest in our economy.

As News staff writer Julie Riddle reported last weekend, that housing shortage affects our lowest-paid workers hardest, with only about half as many available affordable houses as we need to put a roof over our poorest residents’ heads.

The puzzle has many pieces.

Among them, on the broader scope, huge chunks of our homes are tied up as seasonal or recreational homes such as hunting cabins or lake cottages. Because governments tax such second homes at a higher rate, that makeup helps our local governments’ coffers, which helps provide important services for seasonal and year-round residents alike. But it also means fewer homes available for renters or buyers who want to move here.

For our lowest-income residents, developers are reluctant to build new housing for low-income residents, which means low rents and a longer wait to recoup upfront investment. As well, government grants tend to go to bigger cities, leaving rural residents behind.

Policymakers have a number of solutions available to them. Local governments could limit the number of new seasonal homes allowed in their communities (though lawmakers in Lansing have moved to prohibit such rules). State and federal lawmakers also could invest in targeted grants to help the problem in rural areas.

No matter what government does, the private sector must be willing to take the chance to invest in new construction (though high costs for materials have slowed such investments) to meet the demand.

Unfortunately, with so many other issues on the table, from infrastructure to pandemic spending to immigration, housing hasn’t seemed to enter the broader conversation in Lansing or Washington.

It must. Housing is a puzzle we have to crack — and soon — for the good of our economies and our residents.

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