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Money Talks: But sometimes it hides

Lobbyists can pick up the tab for legislators. Some legislators welcome the favor, others decline.
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Lobbyists can pick up the tab for legislators. Some legislators welcome the favor, others decline.

Elected state officials in Michigan can be more secretive about money than federal officials. At the state level, the disclosure laws on money and politics make it easier to hide conflicts of interest and influence on politicians.

When Governor Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State address last January, he tucked into it a quick mention about making state government more open.

“I’d like to work with the legislature on how to improve our laws on lobbying, campaign finance, and ethics for both state and local government.”

We’ve all heard similar statements from politicians at nearly every level of government.

But in Michigan, very little has been done in the last few decades to make it any easier to see what’s going on when it comes to money and politics. So, right now, most voters don’t really know how things work behind the scenes.

Now, I don’t hang out in Lansing all the time. And I’m seldom in the restaurants and bars where the legislators hang out. But some of the journalists who are in Lansing day-in-and-day-out laugh about the sense of entitlement among some of the state legislators.

It’s not uncommon for legislators to go to a nice restaurant, eat, drink, and then wait. They’ll just hang around until some lobbyist comes along and picks up the check for everyone.

I’ve not seen this personally, but from the stories, it might go something like this…

(harp gliss/sound of restaurant)

Server:  Can I get you gentlemen anything else?

Senator:  Yeah, sweetheart, I think we’ll have another round of bourbon.

Server:  Certainly, Senator.

Senator:  Make ‘em doubles.

Sever:  Yes, sir. The top shelf again?

Representative #1: (with snicker) Nothin’ but the best for Michigan’s legislature.

Senator: (aside) Well, I’m not picking up the tab for this anyway.

Representative #2 Heh- the Senator hasn’t paid for a meal in six years.

(all laugh)

Representative #1: So, who’s here tonight?

Senator: Well, we’ve got the insurance lobby over there, the medical lobby over there. And, since you’re here, Representative, we might even get the environmental lobby to pick up the tab this time.

(all laugh)

(harp gliss)

Well…at least that’s the way I imagine it.

There’s nothing illegal going on here. Each registered lobbyist is allowed to spend $57 per legislator per month without ever reporting it. Multiply that by the number of legislators… and then again by the number of lobbyists… and you can see how that could get into the millions of dollars after a while.

Can you say, “free lunch?”

Not every legislator is comfortable with the arrangement.

When Joe Schwarz was a Republican legislator in Lansing, he says he didn’t like the idea of lobbyists picking up the check for a meal, or even a drink.

“I wouldn’t let anybody buy me a beer. I mean, I’d buy the bar a beer, but I wouldn’t let anybody buy me a beer. That was probably a little extreme, but that was the way I felt.”

Schwarz says when he was in the legislature more than a decade ago, there were some politicians who were pretty cozy with certain lobbying firms. Also there was a fair number of independent legislators who worked with, but didn’t really take anything from lobbyists. He thinks too many Members of the Legislature today don’t even think about the ethics of the freebies.

“With term limits, there are fewer independents. Because of the minimal amount of time –especially members in the House- spend in Lansing, it simply does not give them enough time to learn how you should really behave and they have no peers to look forward to because there are no mentors. They’re all freshmen, sophomores, or in their third term.”

So… he thinks some of these legislators just don’t know any better.  They think free meals and sporting tickets and golf games are just some of the perks of their new jobs in Lansing.

Jocelyn Benson says Michigan needs to take a serious look at its lobbying disclosure requirements. She’s an election law professor at Wayne State University and a former Democratic candidate for Secretary of State.

“That fact that anyone can take a legislator out to lunch or fly a judge across the country and put them up in a fancy hotel and they don’t have to disclose that-  citizens have a right to know about that because these elected officials work for us, not for private entities, not for corporations. And the more we can do to shed light on the money and the lobbying effort as well will help us as citizens and as voters be able to understand what’s going on behind closed doors and also importantly hold our elected officials accountable.”

Jocelyn Benson also thinks Michigan should consider requiring the legislature and top elected officials to disclose their private financial interests. They’re making billion dollar decisions for the state involving big contracts. We have no way of knowing if elected officials are benefiting directly from those decisions. What if they own part of a company that gets a big state contract?

“Like in most states, people who are elected to office need to be able to disclose their finances. That’s something that, frankly, people can do voluntarily, I would encourage the Secretary of State to post something on the Secretary of State’s website to encourage legislators to voluntarily do this.”

Michigan law only states that legislators cannot enter a contract for state work in a way that “shall cause a substantial conflict of interest.”  That leaves some room for interpretation.

Last year Michigan Watchlooked at that question. We contacted a legislative ethicist Alan Rosenthal. He’s a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers. He says in most states, legislators can avoid conflicts of interest by disclosing any interest they might have in legislation.

AR: “Which are otherwise probably filed on financial disclosure forms anyway.”

LG: Michigan, like Vermont and Idaho, has no disclosure requirements at all. 

 AR: “Oh, no public disclosure?”

LG: Right.

AR: “Of financial interests?”

LG: Exactly.

AR: “Okay. Well, that may be something that Michigan might want to look into.  I mean, most states have them.”

Rosenthal says it would give voters more confidence in the legislators. But right now Michigan elected officials just want us to trust them.

Another change Jocelyn Benson would like to see is more disclosure in who’s paying for election ads that end up indirectly benefitting candidates.

“Since the United States Supreme Court decided a few years ago to give corporations a right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, to pay for political ads and all the rest, there have been no disclosure requirements for that money placed on corporations in the state. We’re talking about millions of dollars that’s being undisclosed and we as consumers and as voters have a right to know who’s paying for these ads.”

Benson is not the only one calling for this kind of reform.  Watchdog groups such as the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and others want greater disclosure.

David Magelby says he thinks it’s especially important at the state level. Magelby is the Dean of Political Science at Brigham Young University.

“With respect to state legislators, knowing where their money comes from is probably more important than at the federal level because there aren’t as many resources and therefore those resources are all that much more important to them in terms of paying for their campaigns, launching their political careers.”

Magelby says studies in other states show politicians are more likely to feel they have some kind of obligation to those who pay for their campaigns or independent ads that help their campaigns.

But with the weak disclosure laws in Michigan, it’s hard to track the connections between politics and money. While elected officials often say they want more openness in campaign finance laws, some experts suggest we’ll have to see a big scandal here in Michigan before voters will demand stronger disclosure laws from the legislature.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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