Legislature + lobbyists is a match made with money

Willie Sutton reputedly said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was.

Freshmen lawmakers new to the ways and means of Lansing find the same principle applies when replenishing their campaign accounts mere weeks after taking the oath.

Where the money is for that purpose can be a quick step across the street from the committee rooms where legislation is drafted, or the House and Senate chambers where the bills are voted on. Writing the $150 checks (or more) are the same lobbyists who on those same days testified in those committees or pressed their positions in the Capitol hallways during session.

Six-dozen House freshmen elected on a 2010 wave of voter disgust over the conduct of politics collected more than $500,000 last year in such fashion. On average, Lansing fundraising generated about a third of all the money they received in 2011. For some lawmakers, it was more than 70 percent.

The checks were collected at breakfasts in the Mutual Building next door to the Anderson House Office Building, at lunches at the Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association headquarters, and after-session functions at the lobbying firm Karoub Associates.

Who pays the price of admission at these Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday gatherings? Just about any lobbyist or association executive with access to political action committee accounts that assembled $1 million a month in first nine months of 2011.

While the practice of Lansing fundraising is hardly new, its current prevalence suggests that those who ran against the “broken” culture of Lansing don’t yet feel obligated to reform it.

During the term-limits equivalent of the cretaceous period two decades ago, some lawmakers suggested banning the daily juxtaposition of taking money from lobbyists being paid to tilt legislation this way or that. One solution offered: Close the fundraising window for legislators, or at least the acceptance of PAC checks, until after the filing deadline for office closed in the spring. (This year's filing deadline is May 15.)

The idea never went anywhere in Michigan, even though such restrictions on fundraising during legislative session days are in place in 29 states, including some with full-time legislatures like Michigan's.

Such laws don’t preclude a legislator from ever receiving a campaign contribution from a special interest. But they do seek to limit the transactional appearance of lawmaker-lobbyist relationships that have contributed to public cynicism with the process.

That appearance, of course, leads to the assumption that the PACs and the lobbyists that control them are getting something of value beyond a cup of coffee or a cocktail with a lawmaker.

Not so, says Sterling Corp.’s Steve Linder, a Republican fundraiser.

“The act itself of raising money is not a bad thing,” he said. “The Legislature has great sway over broad swaths of the private and public sectors. (Interest groups) quite frankly have a right to champion those (legislators) who are going to champion their issues.”

“The inference that there’s some direct relationship between money and votes is sheer nonsense,” Linder said.

Rep. George Darany, a Dearborn Democrat, said he was surprised to learn there was no state law barring the distribution of campaign checks in legislative office buildings or other state property. Instead, it’s prohibited by internal House and Senate rules. So he introduced legislation that codifies the ban in statute. He also had a Lansing fundraising event last year.

Darany, in his first term in the House, said the events give newcomers like himself a chance to meet 50 or 60 lobbyists in one location that he’ll be working with over the course of his first term. Such “relationship building” is part of being a legislator.

With dozens of new lawmakers coming in every two years because of term limits,  “the fundraiser gives you the chance to match the name with the face,” said one lobbyist. “It’s chit chat, getting your face in front of the legislator every once in a while. Most of the time it’s ‘thanks for coming and eat some food.’ ”

It’s not so much that lawmakers view their access as something to be sold. Or that lobbyists see access as something to be bought. Think of the Lansing fundraising culture as club membership with rewards.

Thanks to term limits (no more than three terms in the House -- six years total -- and two terms in the Senate -- eight years total), there are more new members every two years. And as soon as they get to Lansing, they are deluged with unfamiliar issues and peppered by leadership officials with advice to pay off their old campaign debts and prepare for the campaign ahead, to ensure both a newcomer's re-election and boost their party's prospects for power.

“They come in here and they don’t know anything, so they’re dependent on lobbyists for both the policy perspective and the money,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

What has been a long been lack of concern with appearances -- as evidenced by the appetite for PAC checks when the Legislature's in session and the reticence to require their disclosure on a timely basis -- can lead the Legislature’s reputation into the deeper waters of the perceived quid pro quo.

Two governors, one bridge

When former Gov. Jennifer Granholm was proposing to build a new bridge over the Detroit River, Republicans who had taken tens of thousands in contributions from Manuel "Matty" Moroun and his family, which owns the Detroit International Bridge Co. and the Ambassador Bridge, could base their opposition on distrust of a Democratic administration.

When they presented the fiscal 2013 budget on Feb. 9, Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley reiterated their support for what's now known as the New International Trade Crossing, which was shelved last year by their Republican allies who control the House and Senate. The administration's restatement came on the heels of campaign finance reports that the Moroun family had donated about $250,000 to various candidates and political party committees in 2011.

The Legislature’s refusal to advance a project backed by a GOP governor and most of the state’s business community could lead a citizen to the logical conclusion that money, not partisan hostility, was stalling an up-or-down vote on the bridge all along.

Now the easiest way to demonstrate that the Moroun contributions haven’t been an influence would be to schedule floor votes on the bridge concept once and for all. For their part, NITC backers believe bipartisan majorities could be cobbled together.

But here is where the landscape really has changed in Lansing -- changes that mix the existing money culture with a healthy dose of simple fear.

If the Morouns can spend millions on TV ads in legislative districts warning lawmakers not to support a bridge that competes with their own, they can certainly spend $100,000 backing someone in the August primary or the November general to threaten the re-election of incumbents and a Republican majority in the House.

Huge sums of outside, largely undisclosed money could be a deciding financial factor in which House members come back for another two-year term and which party will control the chamber in 2013. And the impact of such "outside" spending is not a hypothetical matter; it's template can be found in the rancorous statewide campaigns for the Michigan Supreme Court, including a 2008 campaign that defeated incumbent Chief Justice Clifford Taylor. The 2010 Supreme Court campaign consumed more than $11 million, a majority of it spent on independent advertising with dollars that didn’t have to be reported thanks to Michigan’s lax disclosure standards. An interest group can run an issue ad thoroughly trashing a candidate, but absent the “express advocacy” of her defeat, the money that paid for the ad can remain secret under Michigan law.

According to campaign finance statements filed by the Jan. 31, 2012, deadline, the average House member had $30,000 cash on hand -- and $20,000 in debt. Take the two main caucus PACs for Democrats and Republicans, double their combined balances of $1 million, and that represents just $160,000 for the dozen or so competitive seats that will determine if the GOP keeps the House or Democrats regain control.

Democratic strategists say gaining the 10 seats required to flip the House could cost as much as $10 million worth of radio, cable, broadcast TV, mail and, yes, robocalls. Republicans and their backers say they’ll be prepared to spend that much to keep it.

“Citizens want transparency, but that’s not what the interest groups want,” Robinson said. “That’s the dilemma. And the interest groups are winning.”

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.

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Tue, 03/06/2012 - 9:11am
All lobbyists should be prohibited. And anyone in the legislature who accepts lobbyists money should be voted out of office. Most of the large private corporations have rules specifying what can and can not be accepted, and not much can be accepted except maybe a coffee mug or a keychain, and then with a low low maximum value. It is time for the people to make the politicians live like we do.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 9:24am
Political contributions of the kind going on right now are a deal with the devil (not in a religious context). The devil is in the details, someone always loses and that someone is the group that desperately needs the benefits and is no longer being represented by the politicians. Take the $2Billion giveaway to corporations that is being paid for by retirees, the poor, the working poor, the disabled and disadvantaged, children's education and other disenfranchised groups. It is "trickle down economics", a discredited economic theory, at it's worst. Snyder and the Repugs are forcing the most despicable political agenda in our history onto the citizens of MI., all to benefit corporate AmeriKa, and further the corporate takeover of our democratic system and convert it to a Fascist gov't.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 10:20am
Rich an Paul, you guys are off base on this, and so is this article. Legislators often have an area of interest but that is very narrow compared to all the areas they have to make decisions on, and most of those decisions are not related to the core values they campaigned on. Money does not by votes, it buys time, time to make your case to the legislator. It also helps someone who is aligned with your interest get and stay elected. Takes money to run those ads, put all those signs out, etc. And Paul, if you think all this money is dirty, be careful. You spout heavy democratic rhetoric but they are taking as much money as the republicans. Or is the money only dirty if it goes to the 'other' party?
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 11:06am
Houston, we have a problem. Our system of funding elections has a similar problem - it is running out of oxygen pretty quickly in this, the 21st century. This article leaves the impression that our elected representatives must depend heavily on special interests for their education on any specific issue. Lest we forget, these same individuals have a staff, that staff is supported by the staffs of the many agencies of which several pride themselves in their impartiality. The public funds this expert resource. But, this resource only has knowledge to offer, not money. That is why a lobby group or groups with lots of money to spend (there are many that only have their time, knowledge and effort) have a larger voice in decision making than most. Moroun is a good example. But, back to that 21st century thing. Knowing how to use technology should empower legislators to ask the tough questions of those with all that money and quickly let their staffs - and certain non profit groups - verify the responses. Right now we have a large purchasing organization - the legislature and the chairs of the committees - with minimal checks and balances. If they want to keep their jobs and secure a employment future they have to take the money.
Thomas W. Donnelly
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 5:53pm
Our lobbyists in bed with the lawmakers should be called what it really is, legislative porn. Maybr legislative prostitution is a better term.Either way, a strong smell is wafting its way down the Capitol steps to the citizens. The stink is the quid pro quo dance that lobbyists offer to the lawmakers. "Take our money and vote our way" seems to sum it up.And no amount of lipstick can be found to disguise this piggish behavior. Part-time legislature-YES! Unicameral legislature-YES! End term limits-Yes! Allowing lawmakers to serve indefinitely at the very least brings an"institutional knowledge base" to the legislature, rather than reinventing the wheel every two years. The current legislature is a major disappointment, with the winnings going to those with the deepest pockets.
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 8:01pm
I have to say am tired of these blanket condemnation of the system and the people whho populate the system as being secduced by it. There are a few reasons PACs and others donate to candiates, and they aren;t all about bribing officals. Why should anyone give money to a candidate (they are always candidates for their next election) if that person will not listen to them, will simply vote against them because they are of a certain group (businesses, employer, insurance companies, 'wealthy' taxpayer, etc.) why can't they simply be donating to a candidate whose political philosophy they agree with. Rather than simply condemn the system and imply all fall prey to it, why not idenify some examples of those who don't or those who do and make the case why that is so apparent. It seem too easy to make broad statement because then you need on proof. If the system is so bad then offer an alternative and open it up for discussion. My best guess it is too much work and it is far easier to play to the stereotype. There was a time I was involve in a PAC at work and those who donated (hourly and salaried) were the ones that made the decisions on where the money went. The media never care because that was the way the it was suppose to work and their is no news in success. "Thanks to term limits ...they get to Lansing, they are deluged with unfamiliar issues and peppered by leadership officials with advice to pay off their old campaign debts ..." I wonder how that differs from the old system where officer holder were in office for 20 and 30 years and new the system and the player and had campaign debts (unless they were so ensconced that there was no election opposition)? maybe that is what Mr. Luke would rather have is those old time career officals that never had to campaign because the voters never had a choice to vote on. Or is all this about Mr. Lukes' view on a new bridge to Canada is governement owned rather then having private enterprise own anything let alone something that is part of the public transportation system. How Mr. Luke would react if he were in states that have sold parts of their toll roads to private companies. It would probably because of PACs and campaign contributions, it wouldn't matter that the career politicians had overspent their revenues and were desprate for more money for the State to stay solvent. How many time have we heard when people don;t like the vote in the Capital rather then look at the case being made for the vote, either way, being considered it seems to always distill down to 'lobbyist' and the campaign money. I personally start from the point that money only influences those who want to be influenced by it. If I think a person is not reflecting my view on issues I will vote for someone who does. The truth be told there are people inside an out of politics that have many opportunities for being corrupted by money and yet it seems that the overwhelming majority are honest. I wonder if we have such a corrupting system why we have such an effective one., look around the world which election system would we rather have, which ones have produce a more stable governement and country?