Liberal group launches ballot effort to change Michigan lobbying laws

Michigan has received low marks for government transparency, and a liberal group wants voters in November to decide on a constitutional amendment to add numerous restrictions to lobbying in the state Capitol. (Shutterstock image)

LANSING –  A liberal advocacy group on Thursday launched a constitutional amendment ballot initiative effort to change Michigan laws to ban lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials and require a “cooling off” period before former officials could become lobbyists.

“For years there’s been talk about the need for more transparency and accountability in Lansing, but nothing has been done,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “It’s time for this type of legal bribery to end.”

The Coalition to Close Lansing Loopholes — consisting of Progress Michigan, Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, and undisclosed partners — submitted ballot language with the state Thursday morning. If approved, the groups would need to at least 425,059 valid signatures to place it on the Nov. 3 ballot. 

Michigan has been ranked last in the nation for the strength of its transparency laws. 

This ballot initiative would: 

  • Bar lobbyists from giving anything of value to public officials or their immediate families.
  • Require a two-year “cooling-off” period before a former state elected official could become a lobbyist. 
  • Require lobbyists and their clients to report all lobbying expenses. 
  • Require public officials and lobbyists to keep a public log of lobbying actions, including meetings and the subjects of conversations. 
  • Require all public communications aimed at influencing public officials, such as advertisements, to include a marker indicating who paid for them and how much they spent.
  • Require lobbying logs be kept for at least six years. 
  • Give the Secretary of State the power to enforce the rules.

Progress Michigan executive director Lonnie Scott said his group is bringing the initiative because lawmakers won’t increase transparency themselves. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

The rules would apply to the governor and lieutenant governor; secretary of state and attorney general; state legislators; state Supreme Court justices; Court of Appeals judges; state Board of Education members; regents and trustees of public universities; and other elected statewide officials. 

Michigan currently requires lobbyists to report financial transactions of $1,275 or more, travel and lodging worth more than $825, food and beverages worth more than $63 per month, and gifts worth more than $63 per month.

The group is pursuing a constitutional amendment because legislators won’t change the laws themselves, said Progress Michigan attorney Mark Brewer, a former state Democratic Party chairman. 

Scott said he unsuccessfully tried “several times” to collaborate on the initiative with Voters Not Politicians, the group behind a successful ballot initiative to implement an independent redistricting commission in 2018. 

The group has explored working with Republican leaders Sen. Mike Shirkey and Rep. Lee Chatfield on a number of “good government” reforms.

“I personally don’t know how you have a good government reform effort that works directly with the people who are undermining your signature achievement, and frankly I don’t buy the snake oil that Shirkey and Chatfield are selling,” Scott said. 

Elizabeth Battiste, spokeswoman for Voters Not Politicians, said the groups’ inability to connect on the initiative was purely incidental. 

“Voters Not Politicians is open to talking to anyone who’s working to seriously move forward on measures to increase ethics, transparency and accountability in government,” she said.

Progress Michigan is the leading funder of the initiative so far, Scott said, though the nonprofit group isn’t legally required to disclose its donors and doesn’t do so voluntarily.

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Thu, 01/23/2020 - 5:14pm

I was a Lansing lobbyist for over 20 years, and quit in the 1990's, because I wasn't very good at the core function of lobbyists, which is to finance candidate elections. I found the practice of developing PACs and directing and delivering their proceeds to legislators repulsive. I naively thought that advocacy skills and good policy development would sustain my lobbying business. The opposite was, and is, true. The successful lobbyists raise money, and lots of it, to help legislative candidates get elected and reelected.
There's nothing wrong with the proposed amendment, except it will have very little substantial effect except to create mountains of paperwork and computer files. If the goal is to reduce the rampant political and intellectual corruption in Lansing, the answer lies in radical campaign finance reform which removes lobbyists from the process.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 01/23/2020 - 6:05pm

"Progress Michigan is the leading funder of the initiative so far, Scott said, though the nonprofit group isn’t legally required to disclose its donors and doesn’t do so voluntarily."

And THIS is supposed to get people behind this initiative?

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 8:51am

Maybe the nonprofit group isn't disclosing it's donors because without a requirement there is no place to disclose to?
Non-profits that I know of do keep records of donors who support their work with money. The article did not say whether Progress Michigan itself donates any money to legislators.
I know that many people think that "lobbying" means influencing a legislator with campaign donations but that isn't true. I am part of a team that lobbies our Federal government on issues of peace and justice but we have never offered anything of monetary value to anyone. We do present information and our concerns and make requests. In doing this three or four of us carpool to the appointment. This transportation is our only expense. It wouldn't be so hard to write that down, I guess. Nobody pays us for what we do.
Any individual or group can do this by asking for an appointment with a staff person at the nearest office of the legislator. Once in awhile we can actually meet with the legislator his/her self.
This lobbying is called "citizen participation in self-government". We think of it as a good thing.

Sam G
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 9:04am

I thought the same thing, you want transparency in government and a lobbying group at the core of this initiative will not share where the money they get comes from. I assume that the reason is because it will show that extremely wealthy non-citizens of Michigan are attempting to change rules to make it easier for them to manipulate the people in Lansing.

D. C. Walking
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 5:07pm

I agree. Any group genuinely advocating “good government” reforms must, almost by definition, recognize the need for transparency in regard to who funds their activities. A refusal to do so by stating, in effect, “we don’t have to,” renders the effort suspect from jump.

middle of the mit
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 8:47pm

At least they are willing to back an initiative that will force them to disclose when others are. Is the Mackinaw Center for Public Destruction willing to voluntarily disclose it's donor list? Are they going to back this initiative? Will Republicans?

They had 8 years to put some sunshine in the government, why didn't they?

Give credit where credit is due.

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 10:04am

There is definitely something to be said for protecting the privacy of small-amount donors. In this age of social media bullying, is there really anything to be gained by revealing the names of individual donors? It seems to me that this would not be in the public interest. There definitely should be some discussion about where the line gets drawn, but I don't have a problem with the line being drawn. I would hope that Progress Michigan will come up with a mechanism for revealing the identity of institutional donors, and of those individuals who give large donations.

Sad Doctor
Fri, 01/24/2020 - 11:34am

As a physician in private practice for over 12 years, I successfully endured the great recession, doing better every year, until the Trump presidency. Since 2016, business has been going down for not only my practice, but most of my colleagues. So much so that 2019 is the first year ever that my practice actually lost money. I can't cover the costs. Now I have to consider closing shop.

Just as the article says, insurance companies have been raising co-pays, deductibles, and premiums. They are refusing to cover costs to physicians and crucial medicines. I blame President Trump and the GOP in particular for taking away the Affordable Care Act mandates, requiring everyone to have insurance and allowing insurance companies to cover less. The effect has created all the problems that didn't exist before the Trump presidency. Health insurance costs more than ever and, just as the article describes, Americans are merely dying needlessly because they can't afford to see physicians or purchase their required medicines.

Some people think it will never happen to them, just poor people, obese people, people of color, etc., until it does in fact affect someone they love. Then they rationalize that it's just fate or God's will. Heaven forbid we look at the wrongful and cruel policies based in greed. Now I know that President Trump with join the Pro-Life marchers to get their support, at the same time, he does not care about the children in the article who cannot afford their medicine. I feel so sorry for them and their parents who probably can't sleep at night wondering how to care for their sick children. Imagine their fear, guilt, anger, sadness, hopelessness, desperation. They have to feeling all those things to consider going to Canada for answers while living in the supposed "Greatest Country in the World" during the allegedly best economy ever. Meanwhile President Trump never misses an opportunity to rail against our greatest ally and neighbor, Canada.

As a physician, I can say this economy has hurt not only the poor, working poor, but also many people who thought they were in the "middle class", myself included, someone who took pride in providing not only compassionate healthcare, but jobs. I kept an open mind about President Trump, even though I always suspected he was full of himself, a poor businessman who inherited his wealth and squandered it. Unlike him, I didn't inherit anything. I built my business on my own.

He said to African Americans, "What do you have to lose?" He said he was going to improve upon Obamacare and make it better and cheaper. Well, you can buy some cheaper insurance now, but it doesn't cover you when you need it. It's a big fat illusion, just like, well, you know, the guy who filed bankruptcy owning a casino! Everyone knows in casinos, the house always wins more than loses. It's fixed that way.

What do you have to lose, America? Well, you are starting to see it now. Like the article says, Medicaid used to cover the medicine for free, but now it cost $600 a month per child. Last night on the news, I heard that President Trump wants to cut entitlements like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Why? We just gave tax cuts to the richest segment of American. Yet I a physician have endured losses as a result. We are told the economy is so great, then why do we have to make entitlement cuts? Shouldn't the supposedly great economy be able to contribute more to the programs so many of President Trump's supporters use?

As a country, are we so blinded by gun rights and hatred for abortion, gays, and independent women, that we don't see we are ruining our health and the health of our children, compounded by the destruction of our environment?

My only hope is that Americans vote for change and elect a Democrat, anyone running against President Trump. I hate to see the Democrats eating each other, especially Warren and Sanders. They are the ones who truly understand the problems and offer the best solutions. Americans are so used to settling that they don't realize they are being played by the corporate welfare queens that are the true rich "elites", not the people with college education who are spending most of their lives trying to repay school loans.

God bless Slotkin and other Democrats who care. We see that without them, Americans can kiss away the benefits of the ACA that most Americans love, standing against the abilities for insurance companies to charge higher for or dump patients with preexisting conditions or impose limited lifetime benefits.

Put yourselves in the shoes of the family in this article. I bet they don't feel like they are living in the "greatest" country in the world during the "greatest economic times". Sorry for the long post, but I hope at least some supporters of the president, moderate republicans, independents, and conservative democrats, read it with an open mind and heart. We can do way better as individuals with any of the democrats running.

Most of us are not invested heavily in the stock market casino and those numbers mean little. Ask yourself this, how healthy is the water I drink and do I know anyone battling cancer? Be selfish, invest in the health of yourself and your family.

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 6:11pm

Thank you, Doctor, for your service to your patients and your dedication to your profession. Your comments reinforce my earlier comments regarding how we elect those whose job is to represent ALL their constituents. Most of their constituents, however, don't contribute to their election campaigns, and are subsequently ignored. Let's get some genuine campaign finance reform, and maybe we'll get the representation we're promised.

Roberta Duda
Mon, 01/27/2020 - 1:12pm

This is just not a Liberal Issue because you know What Feeds Big Government?
Non-Transparent Lobbying and Out-of-Control Campaign Financing.
What can you do about it? Read Michigan Campaign Finance Network .org