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In about face, legislature OKs bills as donations pour in

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Some businesses are set to get millions of dollars in tax incentives – if Governor Snyder signs a package of bills.

Around the time those bills were going through the legislature, business groups were giving big political action committee donations to some key lawmakers.

Only a handful of Republicans and three Democrats voted against the bills in the House this year. State Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, was one of them.

Johnson says there were lobbyists at the Capitol every day talking to members about the bills.

“People are willing to throw around money,” he said. “You know, you look at someone like that who stands to gain millions of dollars, with $100,000 he can buy off a lot of [legislators].”

The bills, SB 111-115, went through the legislature at breakneck speed. It was a stark difference from last year – when the bills didn’t even get a committee vote.

It’s impossible to say why lawmakers changed their minds. While there were some changes to the bills, they were largely the same.

But one major thing that did change was money.

Credit Photo Credit: From testimony filed by MI-Thrive during Senate hearing.
Graphic of how the MI-Thrive legislation could benefit Michigan, according to the MI-Thrive Coalition.

In the three months it took the bills to hit Governor Snyder’s desk, top lawmakers got tens of thousands of dollars in political action committee donations. And the way they poured in was out of the ordinary.

While many organizations threw their support behind the bills – including many chambers of commerce and city officials – two supporters stood out.

Coincidences in contributions

Craig Mauger is with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. We tracked the giving of two of the bills’ major supporters.

“It was not as if these contributions fell in line with the giving habits these groups had previously,” Mauger said.

Business Leaders for Michigan called the legislation an important redevelopment tool.

It gave $50,000 each to PACS connected to Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Olive Twp.

“There’s no magic to the timing” of the donations, said Kelly Chesney of Business Leaders for Michigan. She said they consistently make donations to the leadership funds of the House and Senate. “And that’s not about one specific policy goal, it’s we – as in years past – want to work with the legislature on policy that will make Michigan a top-ten state.”

Before this year, Business Leaders for Michigan’s single biggest donation within the last decade was $20,000. So, two $50,000 contributions in one year stood out. Both for their size and their timing.

Representatives for Meekhof and Leonard declined to comment.

The bills’ other major backer was Quicken Loans owner and Detroit developer Dan Gilbert. His employees spread out thousands of dollars in donations to top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the state House.

Last year, Dan Gilbert was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the bills. People even jokingly called them "the Dan Gilbert bills."

Mauger explained, “This legislation was originally driven, mainly, by Quicken Loans because they have a project that Dan Gilbert, the chairman of Quicken Loans wants to see come to fruition in Detroit.”

Quicken Loans employees gave more to lawmaker leadership PACs from January first to April 20th than they ever reported giving over an entire year in the last decade.

This year, Quicken Loans employees spread out thousands of dollars in donations to many lawmakers in the House on both sides of the aisle. One lawmaker reports sitting for four separate meetings with Quicken Loans employees and lobbyists. He maintained his “no” vote throughout.

Two lawmakers who got checks stand out. In part because neither were on board with the bills initially.

Last year the bills died in a committee run by Republican Representative and Speaker Pro Tem Lee Chatfield. Chatfield told WJR at the time it was unfair to favor some developers over others.

“When the government does get involved normally you do have winners and losers," he said.

But this year, Chatfield voted in favor of the bills. He says it was because they were heavily amended. Chatfield also received $1,000 from a Quicken Loans employee before the House floor vote. I asked him if there was a connection.

“No donation will ever impact any vote,” he said. “I receive donations from multiple individuals, multiple organizations and none of them change my view on policy.”

The other lawmaker who did an about-face is Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston. He was unenthusiastic about the bills as recently as February, when he said this on Off the Record:

“What Gilbert and the MI-Thrive legislation seeks to do isn’t necessarily our fathers' form of economic development.”

A few weeks later, Tedder held a committee hearing on the bills, and his PAC got $2,500 from an executive vice president at Quicken Loans.

“There is absolutely no connection,” he said when asked about the donation and his decision to put the bills up for a vote. “I look at every issue on its face. I look at the benefits and the opportunities that it may present to my communities and the people that I work for. And those are how I base my decisions. There’s absolutely no connection.”

Quicken Loans declined to comment.

Craig Mauger says Quicken Loans employees gave more to lawmaker leadership PACs from January 1 to April 20 than they ever reported giving over an entire year in the last decade.

And he says it’s reasonable to ask why.

“They’re asking for large tax incentives,” he said. “Millions of dollars in tax incentives from government. And at the same time they’re making campaign contributions to the elected individuals who get to decide whether those tax incentives are handed out.”

We won’t know how much Quicken Loans and other organizations gave to candidate committees, which have different filing deadlines than PACs, until those disclosures are filed later this summer.

For more on this story, see Craig Mauger’s piece for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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