By Peter Luke/Bridge Magazine correspondent
Back in the day, the craftier veteran legislators would pay the monthly lease on their automobiles with campaign checks they collected from lobbyists steering client political action committees.
As their meals were generally covered by those same lobbyists, a Michigan legislator’s expenses could be handled with minimal out-of-pocket sacrifice.
Which was good since into that pocket flowed a monthly, no-questions-asked expense check courtesy of the State Officers Compensation Commission. The less that taxpayer-funded SOCC check was needed for the commute, the more it could be preserved for more important things: vacations, a new refrigerator, college tuition for the kids.
Lawmakers today aren’t leasing cars, but they still cash a flat $900 monthly SOCC check every month — and they still don’t have to pick up the tab when lunching with lobbyists at one of Lansing’s fine dining establishments.
Politicians who shout that government should be run as a business are quite clueless to the difference in the self-regulation that governs the business world and the utter lack of it present in their own state Legislature.
Corporations long ago forbid suppliers from buying dinners or gifts for their employees. No business, moreover, would give their employees a flat monthly expense check regardless of whether any expenses actually merit reimbursement. Any expense payment in the real world is made only after the employee files an expense account backed by receipts.
Not so in the House and Senate. Most lawmakers commute daily for the 100 days of session each year. How many workers in the private sector who drive just as far to get to work are spared from shouldering the cost?
Now the more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money budgeted to cover legislator expenses is no small sum. Worse perhaps is the lack of self-awareness as to how this culture of entitlement to multiple sources of sustenance appears to constituents. And how long it has been damaging the integrity of the institution.
Other states bar lawmakers from receiving meals, sports tickets and greens fees from lobbyists. Or bar the collection of PAC checks during session. Or require accurate, timely reports of what’s spent on lobbying or contributed to campaigns. Not so in Michigan. Since 1995, more than 300 bills have been introduced to amend state campaign finance law and fewer than two dozen, most of them inconsequential, have become law.
Both the loophole-ridden Lobby Act of 1978 and a 1973 standards of conduct law reflect an imperious time that also provided generous, hassle-free pay raises and pension plans with lucrative compounded benefits.
Public anger over the infamous 40-percent pay raise in 2000 that inflated the pensions of many a lawmaker as they were leaving office forced the constitutional change that requires legislators to vote for pay raises if they want them. Defined benefit pensions were scrapped for new lawmakers following passage of term limits. The retiree health-care benefit was finally eliminated last year, but in a way that preserves coverage for all but two senators.
An upright citizens brigade of new lawmakers comes into office every two years on the sanctimonious vow to restore public confidence. Then they become as acclimated to Lansing’s Welcome Wagon of food, drink and cash as their predecessors were.
It’s not as though anyone is out there defending the status quo as something other than unseemly and corrosive. The tacit defense of it, however, is apparent in the Legislature’s refusal to install logical barriers and methods of transparency to lawmaker-lobbyist transactions.
If perception is reality and most relationships are mutually beneficial, why shouldn’t the constituents of a lawmaker who accepts hundreds of dollars in free meals assume the favor will be returned? And since all Michiganians have is one vote in the polling booth every two years, they have a right to wonder where they stand in the pecking order.
But how many of them do wonder? The Legislature’s institutional inability to reform itself has long resulted from the assumption that the public doesn’t care. Or that the votes of those who do care don’t matter. Voters who believe a $1,000 PAC check or a Delmonico can be decisively influential to their elected representative isn’t likely to vote for him anyway.
An easy first step of the many required is Rep. Steve Lindberg’s bill that simply bars elected officials from accepting free food, drinks and other gifts from registered lobbyists. (There are a good number of lobbyists with limited budgets who wouldn’t mind that at all.) But the measure will probably never receive a recorded roll call vote because it would pass unanimously. Who’s going to vote against it?
It’s a tediously cynical way to operate. You’d think after a few decades, the place might want to demonstrate it’s capable of just a bit of self-respect.
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.