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Buying your government

The U.S. Capitol
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Years ago, someone asked if I knew the difference between a legislator and members of a certain disreputable occupation. The answer was that when men gave women in the other group money, it was clear they expected something for it.

Lawmakers and lobbyists aren’t always so honest. Bribing or attempting to bribe a lawmaker is illegal. But it is perfectly legal for a lobbyist, say, for an energy group, to spend lavishly on a key lawmaker, buying her or him expensive meals and paying for their travel to “conferences.” In such cases, it is perfectly clear what those contributing the money want.

They also usually get it. If you asked me who the single most valuable journalist in this state is, the answer would be a young fellow named Craig Mauger, executive director of a non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which you can find online at MCFN.org. That’s where you go when you want  to find out as much as you can about who owns the politicians who allegedly represent us in Lansing.

The politicians want us knowing as little as possible about what they do and who gives them money to do it, and they make it as hard as they can to be transparent. That’s why they just rushed through Senate Bill 335, which is designed to allow politicians to solicit unlimited funds for Political Action Committees that are allowed to hide the identities of their donors.

Michigan Radio, unlike many news outlets, covered that outrage.

But most of us who did relied at least in part on Craig Mauger’s work. Mauger, who lives in Lansing, came to Wayne State University in Detroit at my request last night to put on a program designed to show Stine Eckert, our faculty advisor for the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and our students how to follow the money.

That’s what he does, all day long, when he isn’t helping to raise money to keep the lights on and the rent paid in MCFN’s Lansing office.

There are still laws that require lobbyists to disclose their donations, and Mauger, who is an excellent writer, is constantly posting stories on his website. You can learn that 16 lawmakers each received at least $1,000 in free food in the first few months of this year. State Representative Lee Chatfield, comes from Levering, a town near the Mackinac Bridge. The only place to eat there is the Levering Café, which has a giant plastic chicken on the roof and where the food is neither expensive nor gourmet.

But lobbyists spent $2,578 on fancy meals for Chatfield in the first seven months of this year. You can presume this was not because they are sorry his hometown dining options are so limited, but because he is a rising power in the majority Republican Party.

Earlier this year, a tax incentive bill to benefit Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans was stalled in the legislature. Quicken spent more than $159,000 to lobby lawmakers, and Quicken’s bills are now law. Whatever you think of that, I think people ought to know about it.

So to paraphrase the old saying, if you aren’t outraged, go to the MCFN website. You’ll be paying attention soon enough.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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