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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/03/loose-rules-allow-lobbyists-to-fatten-lawmakers/

Public sector

Loose rules allow lobbyists to fatten lawmakers

When it comes to ethics guidelines, or ordering off the menu, the Michigan Legislature has long set a low bar for itself.

Other states bar lobbyists from buying meals and drinks for lawmakers. Others set limits on how much food and beverage a lawmaker can accept from a lobbyist in a single setting – $50 in Louisiana, for example. Or they have limits on an annual basis — $75 in Ohio.

Michigan sets no hard guidelines for lawmakers to follow and imposes no limits — just  reporting thresholds — on how much food and beverage lobbyists can provide.

Legislators in Michigan, moreover, enjoy one of the more handsome expense benefits in the nation: $900 a month, $10,800 year. Every current member of the House and Senate takes the benefit, no matter that most members commute daily to Lansing for session.

It’s not as though they need the cash, given the free flow of nourishment and libation that is as routine in Lansing as it is unregulated. The Michigan Department of State reports that registered lobbyists spent $776,670.56 on food and beverage in 2011, more than double the $302,276.96 reported in 2001 in raw, non-inflation-adjusted figures.

For a point of contrast to Michigan’s legislative cornucopia, take South Carolina:

“A lobbyist or a person acting on behalf of a lobbyist shall not offer, solicit, facilitate, or provide to or on behalf of any member of the General Assembly, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, any other statewide constitutional officer, any public official of any state agency who engaged in covered agency actions, or any of their employees any of the following:

Lodging, transportation, entertainment, food, meals, beverages, money, or any other thing of value.”

And …

“A member of the General Assembly, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, any other statewide constitutional officer, any public official of any state agency who engaged in covered agency actions, or any of their employees shall not solicit or receive from a lobbyist or a person acting on behalf of a lobbyist any of the following:

Lodging, transportation, entertainment, food, meals, beverages, money, or any other thing of value.”

In Michigan, not only can lobbyists give lawmakers gifts, the monthly gift limit is conveniently indexed for inflation every year. In 2012, the limit is $57 a month or $684 a year. “Gift” is defined under PA 472 of 1978 to include “a payment, advance, forbearance, or the rendering or deposit of money, services or anything of value, as adjusted (by the Detroit Consumer Price Index).

The law also defines what a gift is not and that includes: “A breakfast, luncheon, dinner, or other refreshment consisting of food and beverage provided for immediate consumption.”

So, the amount of food and beverage that can be provided is unlimited — and only some of it has to even be reported. The reporting threshold, annually indexed to inflation, is $57 a month and/or $350 for the semi-annual reporting period.

Further, there are no restrictions on what a lobbyist can provide in the way of travel for lawmakers “in connection with public business,” and only travel expenses in excess of $750 have to reported.

The Lobby Act of 1978 governs the activities of lobbyists, not lawmakers. PA 196 of 1973 — the Standards of Conduct for Public Officers and Employees Act — is supposed to govern the actions of public officials. And it does state: “A public officer or employee shall not solicit or accept a gift or loan of money, goods, services, or other thing of value … which tends to influence the manner in which the public officer … performs official duties.”

So the law hinges on what the meaning of “tends” means. Who’s to say a bottle of wine carries any influence at all?

But, just to be on the safe side, legislators conveniently didn’t include themselves in the law’s definition of public officer anyway, so they aren’t even covered by what amounts to an illusion of a guideline.

Rep. Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette, introduced House Bill 5255 on Jan. 19 to correct that omission and more by banning the receipt of any gift, including food or beverage, because, he says: “It’s harder to say no to people you’ve broken bread with.”

“Have I gone out to dinner with a lobbyist? Have I had a drink with a lobbyist?” he asked. “Yes. It’s a strange culture. I’ve never been 100 percent comfortable with it, but the longer I’ve been exposed to it, the more I see money involved in the process, the less comfortable I am with all these aspects of it.”

“Now I’m not saying that people change their vote on public policy for a lousy dinner or a glass of wine, but the appearance to the folks back home isn’t one that we really want to have our citizens thinking that this is the way things operate. From an appearance standpoint, sometimes it doesn’t look good.”

Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.


 

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. David

    Wow! Northeast Michigan is blessed to have a representative feeding at the trough provided by the big money boys in Lansing. Who would have thought that Peter Pettalia’s vote was so salable that it put him in the top 10 of the Silver Supper Club. Obviously the lobbyists in Lansing discovered this very quickly.

  2. Scott Roelofs

    Legislators of both parties will never even introduce a bill to rein in this corruptive practice. As in the term limits issue a few years ago, it will take a vote of the people via referendum to stop all gifts to legislators. Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to care enough about the issue to start a petition campaign.

  3. Mrs A.

    Wow! I am looking for a job. Think I’ll run for state office instead of taking a regular, you know, stupid hourly gig. Sounds like you can clean up in Lansing.

  4. A2Politico

    Excellent piece! We caught Rebekah Warren taking food and drinks from her District’s OWN lobbyist: Kirk Profit. Was Profit unsure that Warren was going to support legislation for the community that pays them both? Perfect case of gorging on the taxpayer dime, quarter and dollar. http://www.a2politico.com/2011/11/why-is-ann-arbors-state-senator-accepting-free-meals-from-the-citys-own-lobbyist/

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