A Republican state senator is again trying to prevent Michigan lawmakers from taking new jobs lobbying their former colleagues in the Legislature immediately after leaving office.
Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, introduced a bill to prohibit former state legislators from working as registered lobbyists for two years after they leave office — three, if they ever served as chairman of a legislative committee. The fear, he said, is that, without a “cooling-off” period, lawmakers may be tempted to support policies that help them gain their next job, rather than focusing their votes on what’s best for Michigan.
“Day one, you could walk out of the Legislature and go right into a firm, and that immediacy creates the concern that was there some quid pro quo involved,” Runestad told Bridge.
“You could be a legislator in a committee voting on bills that have enormous financial benefit or detriment to particular industries, or, more importantly, you could be the chair of that committee, which means you can deep-six or fast-track any bill you want,” he said.
It’s something Runestad, a first-term senator, has tried at least twice before while serving in the state House, though past attempts have failed to reach the governor’s desk. This one has long odds, too, though Runestad said he hopes pressure from a public that already lacks trust in state government will build to a crescendo.
The bill, and Runestad’s effort last term, have had bipartisan support. But Runestad said he suspects there may have been resistance from legislators who were interested in pursuing a job in lobbying after leaving office.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake and chairman of the committee where Runestad’s bill has been sent, told Bridge he hasn’t had discussions about the bill but it’s not off the table for consideration.
“I’m not exactly excited about it, because it does infringe on people’s freedoms,” Shirkey said. “But I do understand the point.”
Michigan has been ranked at the bottom of states when it comes to government ethics and transparency. The state also has the strictest legislative term limits in the nation, with lawmakers limited to six years in the House and eight in the Senate. Some outgoing legislators move into lobbying once they’re termed out of the Legislature, creating the perception of a “revolving door” that leaves citizens in the dark.
The Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that publishes Bridge Magazine, found low trust in state government in a 2017 report based on conversations with thousands of Michigan residents.
“The point of a proposal like this is to try to prevent lawmakers from being under huge conflicts of interest in their final months before leaving the Legislature,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group. “You could have lawmakers who know their term’s going to end, who are looking for their next job and could be looking for a lobbying job with a group that is lobbying them while they’re in the Legislature still.
“The idea of a cooling-off period is simply to push off that decision,” he said, “to limit the possibility that a lawmaker is going to take an action to benefit their future employer.”
As of 2017, 26 states require former legislators to wait one year before going to work as lobbyists, while 11 require some form of a two-year wait, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri’s law recently changed from six months to two years, while Florida voters last fall approved a six-year wait that will take effect in a few years.
Michigan, in contrast, is one of roughly 10 states that require no such waiting period. The only restriction Michigan currently places on legislators working as lobbyists is to ban them from being compensated for lobbying work for the remainder of their term if they resign from office.
Lobbying is defined under state law as communicating “directly with an official in the executive branch of state government or an official in the legislative branch of state government for the purpose of influencing legislative or administrative action.” Individuals who work as lobbyists — typically known as “lobbyist agents” under the law — are defined as people who receive compensation or reimbursement for their lobbying work.
(State lobbying registration records are public and can be searched online.)
Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a freshman Democratic state senator from Beverly Hills, is a co-sponsor of Runestad’s latest bill. She said the relationship between lobbyists and legislators is “too tight” and a function of strict legislative term limits.
“It looks very suspicious, even if it’s not,” Bayer said. “If we put a boundary in there, a barrier in there, then it becomes obvious that we’re working above the board, right? It’s very clear that there’s no direct relationship between what I just did last December and what I’m doing now not that I’m in the Legislature.”
Since the last legislative term ended in December, a number of former legislators and elected leaders have moved into lobbying, including former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who now works for the Small Business Association of Michigan, and former state Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, a Republican from Lowell, who last term was the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Hildenbrand joined Lansing-based Kelley Cawthorne, a multi-client lobbying firm, and will focus on appropriations.
On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Robert Kosowski, of Westland, joined the Michigan Association of Counties last month as a governmental affairs associate; he registered as a lobbyist in January. (Kosowski could not immediately be reached for comment.)
And former state Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, has gone to work for Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel as her director of legislative affairs. He registered as a lobbyist in January. Knezek could not be reached for comment.
Goeff Hansen, a Republican from Hart, was term-limited out of the Senate in December and this month was hired to run MainStreet Legislative Consulting Services LLC, affiliated with the Small Business Association of Michigan and aimed at helping small companies navigate state government. Hansen’s job will involve lobbying legislators.
Hansen registered as a lobbyist in January after leaving the Legislature and starting his own consulting firm and, he said, before SBAM contacted him. Hansen used to run a family-owned grocery, Hansen Foods, in Hart, before his brother bought the store.
“This is just a natural next step,” he told Bridge, adding that he has 14 years of education on how state government works and personally stayed away from any conversations about his next job until he had left the Senate.
Hansen said he doesn’t think the movement of legislators becoming lobbyists is a big problem, mainly because former lawmakers have unique skills that could be valuable in the public policy arena.
“It would be like telling a doctor you’ve got to sit out two years before you start doing surgery,” he said. “Everybody that needs a job has to look for what they’re qualified to do, so taking away things that people might be qualified (to do), that’s kind of a challenge.”
Runestad counters that a legislator’s skills should continue to be valuable two or three years after he or she leaves office, and that those skills should be more valuable than his or her contacts.
He said even if lawmakers don’t negotiate with lobbyists about their next job and a bill on the table at the same time, “the public simply isn't going to know.”
Runestad’s bill, Senate Bill 57, has been referred to the Senate’s government operations committee.