Michigan senator seeks to end ‘revolving door’ of lawmakers turned lobbyists

Lobbying lawmakers

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said his bill to require legislators to wait for two or three years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists is designed to build public trust in state government. Some ex-legislators who are now lobbyists, however, say lawmakers have unique skills that are useful in shaping public policy.

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.

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Mon, 02/18/2019 - 10:13am

Breaking news: Lawmakers who benefit from cronyism see no issue with cronyism. Film at 11

carson lauffer
Wed, 02/20/2019 - 5:17pm

What a surprise!!!!

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 12:55pm

"Michigan has been ranked at the bottom of states when it comes to government ethics and transparency. " Bridge repeatedly refers to this "study" without any comment or disclosure. In this same "study" 95% of all the states got either a D or an F, with none higher than a C, which clearly hints that CPI has a definite agenda at work in their rating criteria! Secondly , from reviewing their Board of Directors and supporters one would reasonably, (or stupid not to) recognize that CPI clearly views government from a left wing perspective. If you have to base as many articles on one organization's opinion as you have these would be good disclosures before you started. Again a lack of ideological diversity at Bridge?

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 2:54pm

'Bridge repeatedly refers to this "study" without any comment or disclosure.'

Why the scare quotes around "study"? Are you implying the report is not, in fact, a study?

' In this same "study" 95% of all the states got either a D or an F, with none higher than a C, which clearly hints that CPI has a definite agenda at work in their rating criteria!'

That seems like a stretch to me. If I were to publish a study on my cats, they would both get Fs for intelligence. If I were studying the people at the gym, they would all get low grades for body oder. Does this imply an "agenda at work"?

The CPI's "About Us" page clearly lists their mission statement as "To protect democracy and inspire change using investigative reporting that exposes betrayals of the public trust by powerful interests." What part of this "agenda" do you find offensive?

"from reviewing their Board of Directors and supporters one would reasonably, (or stupid not to) recognize that CPI clearly views government from a left wing perspective."

I see, so having a "left wing perspective" means... what exactly? The data is wrong? The methodology is flawed? The questions asked and the answers given are fairly straightforward and transparent. What, specifically, would you change about the "study" to make it more trustworthy?

"If you have to base as many articles on one organization's opinion as you have these would be good disclosures before you started. Again a lack of ideological diversity at Bridge?"

What data would you use instead of, or in addition to, the CPI report to demonstrate that trust in government isn't as bad as CPI makes it out to be?

I understand that the right wing is hypersensitive to "bias" in the media these days; any data point that might challenge the conservative narrative presented without opposing "alternative facts" from some partisan spin doctor is held up as evidence of the Great Leftist Media Conspiracy. But I would think that on this, of all issues, we could find some agreement. Are you, as a (presumed) conservative, really arguing that public trust in government is actually high? And that efforts to make government more transparent and accountable are actually part of some leftist big government agenda? If so, you better tell the Republican senator who introduced this bill because apparently he's been hoodwinked.

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 9:54pm

Josh if a teacher or what ever authority were to look a a group of 50 students or as you said cats and then claims from their "study" that 95% of their subjects are substandard with the other 5% being barely tolerable, only a moron wouldn't question that clearly something else is going on. Maybe they believe cats with 4 legs and a tail are substandard when they should have 5 and no tail? Maybe they don't like any cats! CPI isn't measuring the relative performance of state governments, it is in fact measuring how the states measure up against criteria they themselves choose and wish for from their specific, and yes biased perspective. If Mackinaw Center put together a study showing strangely enough, all politicians from given perspective were crap and Bridge were to repeatedly cite this as proof of this I am fairly certain you'd object. Although maybe not, after all they claim to be non-partisan!
As far as relative trust in government goes this is confusing since it is you (i presume?) folks on the left here claiming no trust in government yet you want the state to take care of everything, I assume you hold dear from your healthcare, children and parents, where those on the right want as little as possible from them.

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 1:48pm

We need to reduce the number of former elected state legislators who become lobbyists. One essential step in this process would be to rethink our current term limit provisions.

David M Dunn
Mon, 02/18/2019 - 3:31pm

2 years isn't adequate. 10 years is the minimum.

Michigan Observer
Mon, 02/18/2019 - 3:55pm

The crucial question is whether or not there is any correlation between this outfit's ratings and the quality of a state's governance. If there is, I haven't seen any evidence of it. Some states with a first class collection of good government laws are poorly governed and corrupt, while others have a tradition of honest effective government. Advocates of these measures tend to be people with an unwarranted faith in government who have no other explanation for government failing to live up to their unrealistic expectations.

Charlotte Morton
Mon, 02/18/2019 - 4:17pm

I think this is a good proposal. It can help keep politicians from
influencing our government after they leave office. Our state government, remember, is for the citizens not the politicians. We need to listen to the people's interests, not the lobbyists .

carson lauffer
Wed, 02/20/2019 - 5:16pm

If we could ever return to a part time legislature lobbyists would have less time to buy legislators.

Cliff Finney
Wed, 02/20/2019 - 10:23pm

This is basic, good government. Public service requires fidelity to the public good. It is not a stepping stone to a lucrative lobbying career.

Doug L
Thu, 02/21/2019 - 8:32pm

Because we have term limits, legislators have to be concerned about where their paycheck is coming from when they are no longer able to serve as representatives or senators. It may be unreasonable to prevent them from working as lobbyists.