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Michigan lobbyist spending hits record high in 2015 with loopholes galore

The Michigan state capitol building
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Michigan Capitol Building, Lansing, Michigan

In a national study, the state of Michigan finished dead last in the country when it comes to state government transparency and ethics. In categories like political financing, public access to information, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement agencies, Michigan’s grade was an “F” from The Center for Public Integrity and the group Global Integrity.

Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network joined Stateside to review some of the political spending numbers from 2015.

According to Mauger, lobbying was a growing business in Lansing last year, as lobbyists spent a record $38.7 million to get their messages to politicians. They also spent more on food and there were more lobbyists in Lansing than ever before thanks to these growing firms.

“The center of the lobbying world in Michigan are these multi-client firms that have a laundry list of different clients that they represent before the Legislature,” said Mauger. “Some of them have 50 clients, some of them have more than that.”

No one is arguing that lobbying is necessarily an evil thing. I think the problem that a lot of people see ... is that there needs to be more disclosure from dollar one.

Mauger says under the current disclosure regime, these clients have to provide the amount that they spent on lobbying in total, and a list of their clients, but they don’t have to break down how much they spent on each client.  

They also don’t have to report food and beverage spending unless it exceeds $59 in a month or $375 in a year. Mauger notes that while those numbers are set to change this year, by 2015 standards, he could buy a filet mignon from a high-end restaurant every month for 10 months and not have to report it.

Some would argue that this is just the way government works. As voters, people have the right to get their message across to the lawmakers that represent them.

“We have a right to go to the government and voice our concerns,” said Mauger. “But there’s a recognition that an individual going to the government and voicing their concerns is a lot different than a corporation or a union labor group spending more than $1 million or several million dollars.

“No one is arguing that lobbying is necessarily an evil thing,” added Mauger. “I think the problem that a lot of people see, and that our group sees, is that there needs to be more disclosure from dollar one. And there are a lot of Republicans and Democrats who agree with this, that from dollar one we need to know who the lobbyists are spending their money on.”

Mauger feels that travel spending is another area that needs stronger regulations. Currently, if a lobbyist pays for a politician to travel somewhere, they only have to report it if it exceeds $775.

“What it comes down to is what the public should know about these interactions between these lobbyists and the lawmakers that the public is electing,” said Mauger.

When Rick Snyder was campaigning for governor, he put forth a number of proposals for trying to reign in lobbyist spending in Lansing. He talked about banning gifts from lobbyists, outlawing lobbyist-sponsored meals of more than $10 and limiting lobbyist paid travel to $600 per year.

Last year, Gov. Snyder went on the most expensive lobbyist-paid trip of 2015 when the Ford Motor Company funded his trip to speak before the Commonwealth Club of California on Oct. 1.

“As a candidate, Gov. Snyder was basically flagging this issue that there’s so much money flowing into lobbying and flowing into Lansing and I think he even said he wanted to create a culture of ethics in Michigan government,” said Mauger.

According to Mauger, Gov. Snyder made those statements in 2009 and was based on the number that $31.8 million spent on lobbying and based on last year’s numbers ($38.7 million), there hasn’t been much done on this issue in terms of reigning in the spending with regulations or creating greater transparency to the public.

It is vitally important for the public to, at minimum, be able to draw a line between who is funding these things that are political in nature and who is benefiting from them.

In terms of campaign spending, Gov. Snyder signed Senate Bill 661 at the end of 2013 which doubled the campaign contribution limit for individuals and blocked a move to disclose anonymous contributors that fund campaign ads.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that campaign contribution limits are alright and that they should be upheld because there is a public interest in preventing corruption in government,” said Mauger. “And when we have unlimited campaign contributions rolling in to our elected officials that there’s a possibility for corruption.”

The debate that continues on to this day is whether or not individuals and corporations should be allowed to anonymously pour millions of dollars into campaign ads. Mauger said that transparency is important for the voters to make educated decisions when they go to the polls.

“The public has said in poll after poll, and the view of the Campaign Finance Network is, that it is vitally important for the public to, at minimum, be able to draw a line between who is funding these things that are political in nature and who is benefiting from them.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear about the impact of the more than $22 million in PAC spending in 2015 and the challenge of reaching the voters with this issue.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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