By Ted Roelofs of Bridge Magazine

Whether it’s education, public health or the influence of money in politics, a Center for Michigan report released today reveals a shocking lack of trust by Michigan residents in state government.

“State government is not living up to public expectations. The public does not trust state government to deliver on many of its key missions,” the report finds.

“Across the board, the public sees urgent need to improve the state government services that taxpayers fund.”

That conclusion is borne out in polls and a series of community conversations held with roughly 4,650 residents across the state in 2016, the sixth in the Center’s annual public engagement campaigns, the largest conducted in Michigan. The nonprofit Center for Michigan is devoted to increasing public understanding and involvement in state policy issues. In addition to its public engagement and advocacy efforts, the Center is home to Bridge Magazine, which conducts independent nonprofit journalism across the state.

Download a copy of the report 

In 125 community conversations with about 2,650 people conducted from March through December in 2016, a strong majority reported “low” or “very low” level of trust in state government’s handling of K-12 and higher education, services for low-income residents, and in the state’s ability to foster economic growth, protect public health or the environment.

“It doesn’t matter who we get elected to represent us, because they’re not there to represent us. I find it mind boggling to try to answer these questions in a calm way. It’s not possible because there’s too much sorrow and pain and expense in how we’re operating the state.” – Community Conversation participant

Nearly 90 percent of those who participated in the conversations said they did not trust Michigan’s much-criticized campaign finance system (an opinion echoed by nearly 80 percent in polling). And 81 percent said they had “low” or “very low” trust in the controversial emergency manager law (65 percent in polls).

 

There was also a strong consensus to fix these critical issues, with 90 percent declaring it is “crucial” or “important” for the state to improve education, public health, environmental protection and economic growth.

While the participants also expressed concern about Michigan’s political term limits and how the state draws legislative districts, there was disagreement in the polls and community conversations on how to fix the system.

It’s worth noting these public sentiments were collected as public awareness and outrage over the Flint water crisis was still unfolding, which likely amplified doubts about government. Thousands of children in Flint were poisoned by high lead levels in 2014 and 2015 after the city – while under state emergency management – switched to the Flint River as a water source without proper corrosion treatment, causing lead to leach from lead service lines into the impoverished city’s drinking water.

“It’s very difficult to have trust in a government that has, over a long period of time, declined to respond to its citizens. You know, there was no trust prior to this, but the Flint situation has literally destroyed our faith,” one resident in the community conversations said.

“It doesn’t matter who we get elected to represent us, because they’re not there to represent us. I find it mind boggling to try to answer these questions in a calm way. It’s not possible because there’s too much sorrow and pain and expense in how we’re operating the state.”

Peter Pratt, president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy organization that conducted polling for the report, said its findings could be a troubling signal of voters’ faith and participation in basic democratic functions. PSC conducted a statewide poll in June 2016 of 2,000 residents on the broader issue of trust in government and a second poll in November 2016 of 800 residents on policing in Michigan.

“I think this is pretty significant,” Pratt said of the report’s overall findings.

“I’m trying to figure out if this level of distrust continues or worsens, how are we going to have democratic government? I worry that as people get disengaged or so frustrated with government, that they don’t see the value in voting.

“I think extremism has a better chance to flourish when people aren’t engaged enough to think about these issues.”

Dark money corrupts

And so it is with campaign finance, where the report found acute skepticism over how campaigns are run in Michigan, including laws that allow some money to flow to campaigns without voters knowing where it came from.

In community conversations, 86 percent had “low” or “very low” trust of money in politics, while 78 percent held those views in a Center for Michigan poll of 2,000 residents conducted in June.

“Where are these representatives getting their money?” one participant asked. “I won’t vote for them if I don’t know where their money is coming from. Every candidate should wear signs like race car drivers and we would know where the money is coming from.”

“Where are these representatives getting their money? I won’t vote for them if I don’t know where their money is coming from. Every candidate should wear signs like race car drivers and we would know where the money is coming from.” ‒ Community Conversation participant

Nearly 60 percent in the community conversations called for greater transparency in donor reporting requirements.

A February report by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network might explain some of this cynicism,  as it counted at least $6 million in “dark money” in the state’s 2016 election season. Those are funds from groups whose donors don’t have to be revealed under Michigan campaign laws, which let them spend money in campaigns without being identified as long as their ads don’t expressly tell people which candidate to vote for or against.

Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said dark money seeps into races from the Michigan Supreme Court all the way down to township board and even precinct delegate races.

“That’s especially true in judicial elections,” Mauger said. “We don’t know when the people funding the dark money have cases before the judges or could have cases before the judges. There is absolutely no way to know where that money is coming from.”

The report by Mauger’s group found that dark money funded a $1.7 million statewide TV ad campaign in the Michigan Supreme Court race that told viewers to “vote for life” on election day. The ads benefited two members of the state’s high court, David Viviano and Joan Larsen – both of whom were elected. Viviano was nominated by the Republican Party and Larsen was appointed to the bench in 2015 by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Data published by the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found Michigan had the most expensive and least transparent state supreme court races in the nation in three consecutive election cycles – 2010, 2012 and 2014.

More broadly, Michigan ranked dead last among the 50 states in 2015 in government transparency and accountability laws, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan investigative news organization. The ranking was based on a gamut of ethical factors, including lobbying disclosure, political financing, legislative accountability and more.

In conducting this engagement campaign, the Center for Michigan traveled to every geographic corner of Michigan for its community conversations, with demographics of participants roughly matching the state in race and income level. In both the community conversations and accompanying telephone poll – also balanced for race and income – participants were asked 23 questions about public trust in state government to gauge their strength of sentiment on key issues.

The Center found that the general public’s trust in education was no better than for campaign finance.

Eighty percent of residents in community conversations and 65 percent in polls had “low” or “very low” trust in state government’s oversight of K-12 schools and higher education. Fully 90 percent in conversations and polls thought it “crucial” or “important” to improve state oversight of education.

Overall, the push for improvement in public education emerged as the highest priority among all state government services measured, with more than a third calling it their top concern.

One participant commented: “As a parent of school-aged children, I think that as much as I would love to see the state do the right thing by our children, when you’re a parent it’s tough, because if the schools are broken now, what do you do? That’s why parents take their kids to charter schools. My daughter is going to high school in Massachusetts this upcoming year, because I needed alternatives to the education she was getting.” (Massachusetts is considered the gold standard for public education in the U.S.).

What’s at stake for Michigan is underlined in a recent report by the Michigan 21st Century Education Commission, tasked with proposing long-term, sustainable reforms to the state’s troubled education system.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution ranked Michigan dead last among the 50 states in school improvement from 2003 to 2015. Michigan was the only state ranked by the study in the bottom 10 in four measures of fourth and eighth grade academic growth over that period.

And a 2016 report by Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based nonprofit education advocacy organization, found that too many high school graduates were entering college unprepared. According to its report, 27 percent of college students in Michigan were enrolled in remedial course work, including 43 percent of low-income students and 55 percent of African American students.

“The urgency could not be greater. While it is difficult to face, the data are clear: Michigan’s children are falling behind,” the state education commission report stated.

It proposed a series of major reforms, including more funding for at-risk students, universal access to community college and to quality preschool for 4-year-olds, as well as the possible abolition of the State Board of Education.

Clearly, the Center for Michigan report reflects a similar urgency from state residents for the state to act decisively on education. Whether the Legislature is prepared to do so remains to be seen.

With regard to services for low-income residents, such as food assistance, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, again there was broad consensus that more has to be done. Overall, nearly 90 percent of those in community conversations consider improvement of services for low-income residents “important” or “crucial.”

Politics bad, fixing it hard

Michigan’s system of political term limits got a failing grade, with three-fourths those in community conversations and 54 percent of poll respondents expressing “low” or “very low” trust in the ability of the term-limit process to produce effective leaders. In place since the 1990s, it limits legislators to three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate.

Critics say it’s built a revolving door of inexperienced legislators, as lawmakers are forced out of office just as they are beginning to develop expertise in the issues and how the system works, while enhancing the power of entrenched lobbyists and special interest groups to steer policy proposals.

“The term ‘career politicians’ has negative undertones, and we do need experienced leaders in office,” one respondent said. “We need people that can come in and learn and influence, but we keep cycling them out due to term limits and not giving them a chance to learn the job and build relationships.

However, the Center’s report found divided opinion on what to do about term limits.

Two thirds of community conversation participants wanted to lengthen or eliminate term limits. But 69 percent of poll respondents wanted to leave term limits alone or make term limits even more restrictive.

A similar divide between in-person conversations and polling emerged about how and whether to change the way the state draws its legislative districts. Redistricting is done every 10 years after the Census, a power now ceded to the Legislature for both state and federal seats. In effect, the controlling party can shape district boundaries to exert maximize political advantage, a perk that has largely benefitted Republicans, who dominate both chambers in Lansing.

Former Michigan Democratic Party chairman and attorney Mark Brewer said he plans to sue state officials over a redistricting process that he alleges has allowed the GOP to consolidate power while minimizing Democratic representation.

On another front, a grassroots organization called Voters Not Politicians hopes to  place a 2018 constitutional amendment before Michigan voters that would ban politicians from drawing their own districts. The goal is to put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission.

Eighty-four percent in community conversations and 68 percent in polls said they had “low” or “very low” trust that redistricting produces fair representation. But they couldn’t agree on how to fix the problem. In response, 57 percent in community conversations favored reforming how legislative districts are drawn – with just 30 percent of poll respondents agreeing.

Kent County resident Katie Fahey, an organizer of Voters Not Politicians, said one of the movement’s key challenges is educating voters why this issue matters.

“When they hear the word gerrymandering, a lot of  people don’t know what that means,” Fahey said. “There are a lot of campaigns for get-out-the-vote. But there’s not a lot of public education on how your districts may be manipulated to make your vote count differently than in other parts of the state.

“We see that as a driving force to raise awareness so we can change things before the next Census.”

Trust in cops

In separate polling of 800 residents across Michigan, the Center found varying levels of trust in law enforcement, an issue that became part of a national conversation in 2016 because of controversial police shootings of unarmed minorities in recent years.

More than three-fourths of those overall in a statewide poll expressed “high” or “very high” trust in law enforcement, with 35 percent expressing “very high” trust. But that trust fell off significantly among African Americans, with just 16 percent expressing “very high” trust in law enforcement.

While 49 percent of state residents overall strongly agreed police methods need to improve in local communities, that jumped to 77 percent among African Americans.

There was broad support overall for more diversity training for police, equipping officers with body cameras and training in community policing.

“These results suggest there may be opportunity for effective community and statewide dialogue about these issues,” the report stated.

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