Bill targets lawmakers' lobbyist switchover

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers would be prohibited from taking jobs as paid lobbyists for at least two years after leaving office under state Senate legislation that was re-introduced during the past week. 

The proposal from Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, would create a two-year “cooling off” period for most lawmakers and a three-year lobbying ban for lawmakers who chair powerful policy or appropriations committees.

“It really will give the voting public the sense that this system is not rigged, it’s not unfair,” Runestad told The Detroit News.

As The News reported last week, Michigan is among a minority of states without an ethics law prohibiting lawmakers from immediately taking paid jobs as lobbyists to the Legislature when their term expires.

Records show at least four lawmakers who left office at the end of 2018 have already registered as lobbyists, including former Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, a Lowell Republican who chaired the appropriations committee that helped craft the state's $56 billion budget.

A fifth lawmaker is seeking a declaratory ruling on whether he has to register as a lobbyist while advocating for a union group. Three former Snyder administration officials have registered, including former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in his new role as president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. 

Cooling-off period rules in other states and Congress are designed to reduce real or perceived ethical conflicts, including the potential for interest groups to promise future jobs to officials in exchange for preferential treatment while they are still in office.

Committee chairs near the ends of their term could theoretically fast track or hold up bills related to industries for which they intend to lobby after leaving office, Runestad said.

“At least that’s the perception of the public,” he added. “And even if that isn’t true, are people ever going to know?”

Runestad’s bill was referred to the Senate Government Operations Committee chaired by Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who has not yet taken a position on the measure.

The proposal is similar to others that have stalled in the Legislature in recent years, many co-sponsored or supported by lawmakers who have subsequently registered as lobbyists.  

Shirkey is not among the past co-sponsors and “has not made a decision one way or another” on whether he’ll schedule a public hearing on the bill, said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, worked with Runestad on lobbying delay legislation last term and intends to reintroduce bills this year in the Michigan House.

“I think it’s really important that the Michigan Legislature shows our voters in every way that we intend to do our job working for the common good and serving everyone’s interests, and not in such a way to lead to self-enrichment,” LaGrand said. “I think a prohibition on becoming lobbyists is part of that.”

But more urgent, LaGrand said, is an ongoing push to require personal financial disclosure by lawmakers, which would help identify and reduce conflicts of interest. Michigan is one of two states that does not require lawmakers and state officials to disclose their personal financial interests.

LaGrand and more than two dozen Democratic colleagues last term voluntarily disclosed financial information. He reported an ownership stake in eight companies, including his law firm, two different distilleries, real estate holding companies, a chair manufacturing company and Egypt Valley Angus Farms.

The Grand Rapids Democrat has personally recused himself from votes in which he may have ethical conflicts — including bills to loosen requirements on becoming a lawyer and lowering the threshold for using a contractor — but said colleagues rarely do the same.

Michigan State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids

LaGrand plans to encourage voluntarily disclosure again this term as he continues to urge legislative action.

“Given the levels of voter distrust in politicians in general, I think it is critical we model transparent behavior, he said.

New Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has hired several former lobbyists into her administration but signed an executive directive to reduce ethical conflicts and is doing a "full review of conflict of interest policies and procedures," according to her office.

Michigan prohibits lawmakers from resigning to take lobbyist jobs during the term they had been elected to, but its lack of broader restrictions is one of many reasons the state got an "F" on the Center of Public Integrity's 2015 government transparency and accountability report card.

Twenty-six states have a one-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists, while 11 have a two-year period. Some states also have temporary lobbying moratoriums for legislative staffers. In Florida, voters recently approved a ballot measure that will ban lawmakers from lobbying for six years, which will be the longest period of its kind when it takes effect.