A Proposal to Link States’ Control Over Federal Block Grants to Their Ethics and Transparency Laws

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., on Capitol Hill in Washington, in April of 2016.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., on Capitol Hill in Washington, in April of 2016. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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The idea, which faces long odds on Capitol Hill, is being pushed by a Michigan congressman.

States would be suspended from administering federal block grant dollars if they don’t have certain conflict of interest laws in place for lawmakers and government contractors, under a long shot bill that a Michigan lawmaker has reintroduced in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Flint, also proposed the legislation in the last session of Congress. But it failed to attract any cosponsors and died without advancing in any of the committees it was referred to.

Nevertheless, Kildee re-introduced the bill this week. His own state has a somewhat weak track record when it comes to transparency laws.

“This bill would require state legislatures to comply with the same ethics requirements as members of Congress," Kildee said in an emailed statement. "And if a state failed to enact these reforms, it would lose some of its ability to direct federal grant funding."

"These types of common sense ethics reforms should be the starting line of good governance,” he added.

The legislation calls for federal agencies to take control of block grant program management, including the selection of projects, if it’s determined that a state does not have one or more of three types of laws on their books, or if the state is not enforcing these statutes.

One of these laws would be to require state legislators to report annually on their financial interests for the prior year. Another would bar state lawmakers from soliciting their employees for donations to political parties or campaigns.

The third law states would need is to make it illegal for anyone who enters into a contract paid for with state dollars, or is negotiating such a contract, to make or promise political contributions until they’ve carried out the terms of the contract or the negotiations are complete.

Funding covered by the bill includes programs like Community Development Block Grants, HOME Investment Partnerships, and Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants.

Local governments in states that are not meeting the requirements outlined in the legislation would also see their authority to manage block grant programs suspended.  

Most states require legislators to disclose at least some personal financial information, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Michigan is one of two states, the other is Idaho, that does not have requirements of some sort in place for lawmakers to publicly disclose information about their income, business investments, gifts and travel compensation, MLive Media Group reported last month.

The Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last in a 2015 report that looked at accountability and transparency practices across states.

Lawmakers there in recent weeks introduced legislation to require new financial disclosures by state-level officeholders. But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has indicated he’s not interested in such proposals, saying they'd make it harder to recruit quality candidates.

This post has been updated with a statement from Rep. Dan Kildee.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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