From lawmaker to lobbyist. Should the state slow down the revolving door?

man standing in front of a revolving door

Lawmakers who make a quick transition to lobbying say that the Legislature benefits from their policy expertise. Critics say the revolving door from lawmaker to lobbyist presents ethical concerns.

As the state pursued plans to build a second Detroit bridge crossing to Canada, Rep. Paul Opsommer, a Republican from DeWitt, was a vocal opponent.

In 2011, Opsommer, then chair of the House Transportation Committee, which studied the proposed crossing, told Crain’s Detroit Business that lawmakers had “a philosophical problem with putting a private business out of business by building a publicly owned bridge.”

Opsommer was referring to Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, property of billionaire Manuel “Matty” Maroun, who mounted a campaign to kill the new bridge project. From his seat in the legislature, Opsommer wrote columns for local newspapers opposing the competing bridge. He argued for passage in 2012 of a constitutional amendment to force a public referendum on the new crossing. The amendment failed.

Opsommer was term limited from the House at the end of 2012. But he soon landed on his feet – securing a job as director of government affairs for CenTra, Inc., the holding company which controls Maroun’s Ambassador Bridge. He registered as a lobbyist in April 2013, less than 100 days after his final term in the House ended.

Across the aisle, Lesia Liss, a Democrat from Warren who left the House at the same time as Opsommer in 2012, registered as a lobbyist five months later. From 2011 to 2012, Liss was minority vice chair of the House Health Policy Committee, which is in charge of health care-related legislation. In 2013, according to committee minutes, she began appearing before that same committee on behalf of a health insurance company.

As elected lawmakers, Liss and Opsommer co-sponsored bills that would have delayed their transition from lawmaker to lobbying for industries that come before their former colleagues. The proposals would have barred legislators from becoming lobbyists for a set period of time after leaving office.

Unlike Michigan, more than 30 states already have similar “cooling-off” measures in place, according to data from the National Conference on State Legislatures. Facing term limits, 38 lawmakers departed the Michigan House at the end of 2016. If recent history is any indication, several will become lobbyists, and those who do will most likely make the jump within the next six months.

Advocates of implementing a cooling-off period in Michigan argue that delaying the transition to lobbying would prevent conflicts of interest that arise out of term-limited lawmakers looking for their next jobs.

Jim Runestad

Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, sponsored a bill last year that would require lawmakers to wait 18 month after leaving office to become a registered lobbyist. He said he doesn’t want colleagues having their eye on the next job as they enact legislation before leaving.

Rep. Jim Runestad, a Republican from White Lake, sponsored a bill last year to institute an 18-month waiting period before former lawmakers can become registered lobbyists. The waiting period is commonly described as a cooling-off period. Runestad said that because of state-mandated term limits, there’s pressure for lawmakers, who can serve only six years in the House and eight years in the Senate, to be searching for their next employment before their terms end.

“It can be very substantial if you’re in your prime earning years and you’ve taken six years out to serve in office,” Runestad said of the pressure to seek the next paycheck after leaving office. “If they don’t have any opportunity that’s presenting itself, they’re going to be looking for what they can do when they leave.”

Reviewing a list of more than 1,000 registered lobbyists in Michigan, Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found 44 former Michigan legislators.

Of those, 28 — 63 percent — registered as lobbyists within a year of leaving their posts in the House or the Senate. Twenty-five registered as lobbyists within six months of leaving office.

More than two decades ago, it was former House Speaker Lew Dodak, a Democrat, who made the jump to lobbying within a week of leaving the House at the end of 1992. Dodak, who had been defeated in his re-election bid, ended up launching his own consulting and lobbying firm.

In a recent interview, Dodak said he doesn’t see any inherent ethical conflict with legislators who turn to lobbying. Dodak said he views it as a means to capitalize on expertise that legislators acquire while in office.

“It’s a shame not to use that expertise,” Dodak said. “You would be surprised in the private sector, there’s very few people who know how the process works.”

Not The Family Farm

In the fall of 2004, then-House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican, was contemplating a life after politics.

According to the Traverse City Record Eagle, Johnson said then he was considering returning to his family farm south of Cadillac. By December 2004, though, it looked like he had something other than farming on his mind.

In a report by the Lansing news service Gongwer, Dodak said he would “love” to have Johnson join the lobbying firm, then called Dodak, Kelly & Associates.

Dodak added that Johnson had even asked if he could store “some stuff” at the firm’s Lansing offices. Johnson joined the firm a few days later as a registered lobbyist. In 2011, the firm added another ex-lawmaker as a lobbyist, former Democratic Lt. Gov. John Cherry.

Dodak, Johnson & Associates is now among the most active multi-client firms in Lansing, with nearly $230,000 in disclosed spending on lobbying efforts in 2015. Its clients include Aetna Inc., Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, the Council of Michigan Dental Specialties and the Michigan Coin Operators Association.

Johnson and Cherry are just two examples of lawmakers joining multi-client firms, where there’s little information available to the public about what specific issues former lawmakers are working in their post-public service careers.

Former Reps. Frank Foster, a Republican from Petoskey, and Eileen Kowall, a Republican from White Lake, left the House at the end of 2014. Foster registered as a lobbyist for Public Affairs Associates on Jan. 15, 2015. Kowall registered as a lobbyist for MGS Consultants on Feb. 19, 2015.

Other former lawmakers have hired on with government agencies as their lobbyists, including former Rep. Andrew Kandrevas (D-Southfield), who began representing Wayne County within a month of leaving office. Similarly, former state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt) now represents the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

Other lawmakers went on to work for companies, like Opsommer and Liss. Through a spokesperson, Liss, who works for Health Alliance Plan, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Opsommer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. In 2015, Opsommer told the Mt. Pleasant Morning Sun that in his new job he would work on international bridge issues if given a chance.

“I’d love to work on that,” he said. “I have a greater understanding of the transparency issues. I think I’d be a good conduit.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming) also went on to represent a business interest after leaving the Legislature in 2006. He registered as a lobbyist five weeks after finishing his second four-year term in the Senate.

Sikkema lobbied for about two years for a development firm seeking to build a $400 million retail, residential and office park in suburban Grand Rapids that was to be anchored by a sprawling Cabela’s store. Sikkema’s job was to help the firm secure state tax credits that would boost the project’s chance of success.

“It was like, ‘Can you help us sort of navigate all of this?’” Sikkema recalled.

Sikkema is now a senior policy fellow at Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, a research and program management firm. (Disclosure: The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge, is a client of PSC and does work with Sikkema) He said he registers annually as a lobbyist because he regularly testifies before the Legislature on various research projects conducted by his firm.

Sikkema is skeptical that a required cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists would make much difference in Michigan’s ethical landscape.

“Look at it over time. There’s very little ethical challenge or problems that I’ve ever seen (when legislators turn lobbyists),” Sikkema said. “Where’s the problem?”

‘Restoring Faith In Government’

State Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn) says the problem with lawmakers immediately becoming lobbyists lies in lawmakers looking for their next jobs while still supposedly serving the public. Lawmakers could end up putting their personal interests above the interests of their constituents, Knezek said.

Last session, Knezek proposed implementing a two-year cooling-off period before former lawmakers can make the jump to lobbying. Like Runestad’s bill, Knezek’s didn’t advance.

“I think this is a great way to work to restore faith in government and I think it’s an important step that we need to take as a state to bring integrity back to the political process,” Knezek argued.

Lawmakers have introduced bills to institute cooling-off periods every session for the last decade. They’ve come from Democrats and Republicans. Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy) said he is planning to introduce a proposal in the 2017-2018 session.

According to legislative records, a majority of current state senators have co-sponsored a cooling-off proposal at one time or another over their careers.

Asked why such a law hasn’t been enacted in Michigan when there’s been support, Knezek said he couldn’t speak for other lawmakers, but thought someone likely has “flexed their influence” to make sure such a proposal doesn’t come up for a vote.

Of the states with cooling-off laws, the restrictions in most range from six months, which two states have, to two years, which at least 20 states have, according to the NCSL.

Other states, like Maryland, ban lawmakers who left office from lobbying until the end of the next legislative session. Some states’ laws impact lawmakers, legislative staff and top administration employees. Others just cover one of those three groups.

In Michigan, the state bans lawmakers who resign from office from lobbying until the end of the term in which they were serving. That ban doesn’t impact key staffers, who can move freely from the Legislature to lobbying the Legislature.

In December, Governmental Consultant Services Inc. (GCSI), one of the state’s five largest multi-client lobbying firms, announced it was hiring Bob DeVries, who had been Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s chief of staff, as a lobbyist. DeVries is now able to lobby Meekhof, who has two years remaining in the Senate.

“His understanding of the legislative process, political instincts and genial personality will undoubtedly help GCSI continue to win for our valued clients at the state Capitol,” GCSI director Michael Hawks said in an announcement.

‘Everyone In This Town Knows Each Other’

As a candidate for governor in 2010, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a mandatory cooling-off period of two years for former lawmakers and senior appointed officials in his administration.

“Michigan has failed to address this issue, making the break from public servant to high-paid lobbyist less clear by allowing elected leaders to begin lobbying former staff and colleagues within a day of leaving office,” Snyder wrote as a candidate in a white paper called “Create a Culture of Ethics in Michigan’s Government.”

But some who served in Snyder’s administration disagree, and have made the transition to lobbying.

Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s former chief of staff who is now a registered lobbyist for the powerful law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, said that when it comes to administration employees, governors are going to hire people with experience inside and outside of government. When those employees leave, Muchmore said, they are likely going to return to what they were doing before.

“I don’t understand how you expect to get people inside government if they can’t go back to the private sector once they’re done in government,” Muchmore said.

He added, “You really have to ask yourself: What’s the problem that I’m trying to solve here? Everyone in this town knows each other. We are going to the same bars. We’re all friends.”

“You really have to ask yourself: What’s the problem that I’m trying to solve here? Everyone in this town knows each other. We are going to the same bars. We’re all friends.” — Dennis Muchmore, former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder and now a lobbyist, on why “cooling-off” laws are not necessary

Muchmore was registered as a lobbyist in the state from 1983 until 2010 before joining the Snyder Administration in 2011. He left the governor’s office in January 2016, according to an announcement, then registered as a lobbyist the following month.

Muchmore said there are other problems with state lobbying laws that need to be addressed, covering issues like disclosure and reporting requirements. If a cooling-off period were implemented, ex-lawmakers would find ways around the law, Muchmore predicted, by taking jobs that don’t require public reporting, like consulting positions.

Under Michigan law, individuals who are paid to communicate directly with state officials to influence their actions are supposed to register as lobbyists. But individuals who are paid to simply advise interest groups can avoid registering.

“What you’re trying to regulate is people’s integrity,” Muchmore said. “If you don’t have it from what your parents taught you, you’re not going to have it.”

Knezek disagreed with that argument against a cooling-off period. He said some people try to get around the law no matter what the law is.

“I am not going to let a very serious problem go unaddressed because we’re going to let perfection get in the way of making progress,” Knezek said.

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Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:00am

The only lobbyists should be the unpaid voters. Donald Trump has it right in prohibiting members of his cabinet from becoming lobbyists.

Carl Ver Beek
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:41am

We invest so much energy and information on these term limited people, allowing them to lobby is the best way to get our money's worth.They only get good at in their last term and we lose them.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:52am

This statement says it all: \'93You really have to ask yourself: What\'92s the problem that I\'92m trying to solve here? Everyone in this town knows each other. We are going to the same bars. We\'92re all friends.\'94 \'97 Dennis Muchmore, former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder and now a lobbyist, on why \'93cooling-off\'94 laws are not necessaryDennis Muchmore was the governor's right hand man at the height of the Flint water crisis. I contacted the governor's office week after week, demanding action in Flint and my emails were not even answered. Was Dennis and his staff off at the bar with his friends? Because he certainly was not addressing the critical issues of the day. Our lawmakers are perfectly happy not addressing ethics issues, because this is how they work and see no problem with it. Since they are all friends, who is going to call them on it. As I have said before, in areas such as ethics, school performance, care for citizens MI ranks at the bottom.The people in the State of MI better be paying attention, because this insular, good old boys club in state government has taken our state down a path that will take years to recover.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:27pm

Muchmore - of 'Flint Fame', right?

Gary Vanek
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:55am

As a former State Representative There should be a two year time you can't lobby or advise a firm on lobbying.

Robert Nelson
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 12:39pm

At the very least, there should be a six-month cooling off period, like the cooling off period for PSC Commissioners. This would greatly reduce the tendency to assist future clients in the waning days of your tenure.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:30pm

No surprise here. We now have a government 'of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations'. And with Trump it will become one on steroids. Just watch. Corruption and crony capitalism running amok.Until we vote out the Republicans in Lansing nothing will change and we may be beyond that point with the GOP at every level now trying to gerrymander and vote blocking at every level.

Chris Heaton
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:49pm

If experience is a valuable commodity for lobbyists to exploit why is our state so uninterested in preserving experience in our legislature? Frankly I want the people with extensive experience in our government - end term limits and allow people to come back as lobbyists once their two years out from their legislative service.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 3:53pm

Good piece, but here's something to consider here: <b>exactly</b> what good would a "cooling off" period do if the people in Lansing don't listen to the people who elected them in the first place?Michigan Taxpayers didn't want Snydercaid. But Lansing politicians gave us Snydercaid anyway.Now, with a new president and a call to repeal the ACA (in less than one week), Michigan Taxpayers are going to either get hit up for another tax hike or several thousand people will find themselves in the same boat they were in beforehand.Michigan Taxpayers didn't want Proposal 1 back in 2015.Lansing politicians not only rammed through the gas tax hikes and license renewal increases previously contained within Prop 1, but they siphoned away that road money in the latest budget and slid it towards non-road related items hoping that no one would ever notice.Instituting a Part-Time legislature would do far more towards addressing this indifference that the Michigan Legislature has with their boss, than tinkering with lobbying regulations.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 4:50pm

You don't start making REAL MONEY until you get out of office. Go back to their original careers and try to earn an honest living. Two year minimum and that might help a little. Peace R.L.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 5:56pm

What are the steps to getting on a state ballot a vote for a Michigan part time legislature?

Kevin Grand
Sat, 01/21/2017 - 12:25pm

Zeke, The process to enact a Part-Time Michigan Legislature would involve a petition drive to get the requisite number of signatures in order to place the measure on the ballot for consideration of Michigan Citizens.Yes, petitions are difficult, but they can and have been done in the past (i.e. Michigan Marijuana and Marriage Amendment). Given the level of disgust with both political parties, it may even be more easier now should both sides work together to reign in the Michigan Legislature.Obviously, bypassing the Michigan Legislature altogether is the most practical method is getting this accomplished because aside from literally a handful of legislators, most of those in Lansing have no interest with doing anything to curtail their power to write laws their constituents do not want or to negatively influence receiving any campaign donations.More information regarding the specific language for a Part-Time Legislature <a href="" rel="nofollow">can be located here.</a>

Wed, 01/18/2017 - 9:08am

This isn't the Michigan or America in which I grew up. From the day people get elected to office (with few exceptions), they begin actively campaigning for reelection and the dollars needed to do it. The voters and issues take second place to courting corporate and other extremely large contributors. No wonder public distrust is at an all-time high. The corruption in our government is rife, and Michigan is a prime example. That Dennis Muchmore left office before he could (should) have been indicted by Schuette is no mere coincidence. How pathetic that we can no longer say with pride, "I'm from Michigan." A two-year cooling off period? At the very minimum!!

Wed, 01/18/2017 - 12:28pm

Well said Pat. Our moral compass has lost it's needle, and the lines between truth and lies is forever blurred. Peace Listen to the hearings and the answers or should I say non answers to questions. If all the Democrats in Mi. and Wisc. had voted we would not be having this discussion.Neither candidate was the perfect choice, but now we must be ever vigilant . R.L.

Wed, 01/18/2017 - 5:26pm

1. As to infrastructure (and the privatization coming up with the new Admin in Wash DC), here is what the people need to think about concerning the wisdom of paying taxes. If the public raises taxes to build a bridge, or schools, or highways, or a public utility, then the people own it in perpetuity. Surely, things will wear out - as our self-indulgent population over decades at least since RR cut taxes and fired striking federal workers has failed to effectively realize; but that bridge, those schools, highways, etc. will belong to the people, meaning the citizens now, their children, grandchildren, and all citizens of the future. On the other hand, if DT and the new Congress decide to sell off bridges and highways, schools, prisons, and anything else of substantial value - not only are they stealing in a very real sense from the citizens past, present, and future, but they are surrendering once and for all unique assets that, no longer owned by the people, the people will have to pay private business to use. This is Trump and other Republicans' idea to build and revamp infrastructure - let private business build and own it and charge fees - 'rents' to the public who need to travel, require water, electricity, and other utilities, to educate their children, to provide for a penal system to protect society from criminals, etc.2. From the general and abstract to the specific: Matty Maroun, billionaire speculator and rentier, should have never become the owner of a major thoroughfare connecting the United States and Canada. Bridges used by citizens to move from place to place, in this case from country to country should be owned by the people, in perpetuity. In other words, bridges should be owned and operated by the entity which serves in perpetuity as the trust for the commonwealth of the people. Unbeknownst to some Republicans, who think that government is a dirty word, that trust entity - of, by and for the people - is what we know as government.So, to turn around the statement that some legislators do not think it fair to build a second bridge if it would impair the private bridge business of Mr. Maroun, a bridge is precisely the type of affair which should be owned and run by the people, by their trustee in perpetuity, the government of the State of Michigan. Maroun should not, and no one should suppose that he - and his family should - have an interminable right to collect fees - rents - from every one and anyone who desires to cross the water by bridge. To say otherwise is to indulge the evidently insatiable greed of the Maroun family to exploit a unique asset that serves a purely public purpose.

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 2:31pm

And no one should own an oil well - the natural resources belong to the people of the earth, right?

Wed, 01/18/2017 - 5:44pm

3. So "everyone" - at least in Lansing - is a drinking buddy of everyone else? What arrogance have these smug members of the Michigan Legislature! Does that include teachers, plumbers, nurses, retail sales people (as opposed to influence sellers), ordinary accountants, postal workers, carpenters, auto-workers, metal-workers, utility workers, small business people who do hands-on work in their enterprises, students, unemployed people, children??? Oh, the legislators and the lobbyists have a very small perspective on who is important in society; on whom the laws are supposed to serve???4. The legislative 'hearings' in which the details of laws-in-the-making are worked out are filled with lobbyists representing businesses which will be effected. How many citizens sit in those hearings? Indeed, how many non-profit organizations are there with the independent resources and expertise to lobby for we citizens - we millions residing in Michigan?? Typically, none or not many, not often. Now the legislators are the ones who are supposed to be working for the people. But, here, the very Party which would most benefit from maintaining the myth that they have, above all, the people's interest in mind, are saying that they themselves and the advocates for businesses seeking to get the most from the government, citizens be damned, are all together in any case, drinking pals who already think alike - indeed, who are ready and willing to step into each others' shoes when the personal advantage occurs to them to do so.5. And - where are the plumbers, teachers, mechanics, nurses, etc. in the State Legislature, who could return to honest work rather than selling their souls to the highest bidder, more or less in the way a beautiful woman might surrender any honest sentiment to seeking out the wealthiest man available, as a consort?? We know how much time, money and intangible personal resources it takes to run for office; . . . This should be part of an argument against term limits. After all, all democratically elected politicians have term limits, effectuated by the people, called elections.

Richard McLellan
Mon, 01/23/2017 - 11:25pm

As an observer of legislators and lobbyists in Lansing since 1965, my view this is one of those symbolic issues that comes up from time to time when there is a need for legislators to "do something." With term limits and no institutional knowledge, many of these bad ideas -- revolving door, personal financial disclosure, "tough" ethics rules, etc. kepp getting recycled. Of course, existing lobbyists may want to support this to keep others out of the business.