News and analysis from The Center for Michigan •
©2015 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at

Original article URL:

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.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Currently on Bridge

Will we be better off if Proposal 1 passes? Former treasurer says yes

An Earth Day pitch: When you hang up the phone for good, toss it the right way

Michigan’s roads affect everyone, so a 'yes' vote on Proposal 1 makes sense

‘Diplomacy Begins Here’ conference aims to illuminate international relations

What NOT to post on Facebook: Jokes about prison rape, when you’re in charge of preventing prison rape

A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison

Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

‘New fish’ ‒ One teen inmate’s account of alleged sexual assault

Early learning summit in June could impact Michigan’s children

Money Smart Week: Be penny wise, and pound savvier

Plan B or no Plan B, here’s what happens if road proposal fails

The political tale behind the selling of Proposal 1

A Bridge primer: Untangling the pothole promise of Proposal 1

Who supports, and opposes, Proposal 1

Let's rebuild Michigan through its greatest asset: its water

Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

Coalition supporting Detroit schools a step in the city’s road back

Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

A cull is a kill, and it’s an overreaction to deer ‘problem’

Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

For one Detroit mom, a complicated path to employment

Detroit by the numbers – the truth about poverty

Michigan should require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten

Where in the world is the Center for Michigan?

After two years, hard to call ACA anything but a success

Bridge’s Academic State Champs emphasizes all the wrong measurements

A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties

Up North, isolation impedes health care for seniors

Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

Not bigger government, but better services when Community Health and Human Services merge

Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

In northern counties, workers and business find each other lacking

Hidden poverty stalks a Pure Michigan setting

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Postcard: When elk is for dinner

Postcard: Luxe life at Bay Harbor reflects changing economy

Postcard: A roof and a bed

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.