Ballot plan bans lobbyists from buying food for Michigan lawmakers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan lobbyists would no longer be able to buy meals or provide anything else of value for state lawmakers under a ballot proposal unveiled Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

The proposal, which aims to amend the state's Constitution, would also create a two-year cooling-off period before former elected officials could become lobbyists and would require lobbyists to publicly log what topics they're discussing with lawmakers.

The proposal would make Michigan a leader in lobby reform, said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. The group on Thursday filed its petition language with the Michigan Department of State.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured in December 2019.

"It will take back our government from the monied interests and return power where it rightfully belongs with the people of Michigan," Scott told reporters.

During 2018, registered lobbyists in Michigan spent a record $40.3 million trying to influence state lawmakers, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Overall, lobbyists reported spending $625,803 on the broad category of food and beverage expenses in 2018.

Final totals for 2019 aren't available yet.

In addition to buying food for lawmakers, lobbyists can also provide them with gifts as long as the gifts don't cost more than $63 and fund trips for them.

The Progress Michigan proposal would bar lobbyists from giving officials "anything of value." It specifically says "anything of value" includes food, beverage, entertainment, transportation and lodging. It doesn't include providing lawmakers information or campaign contributions.

Progress Michigan logo

To get the ballot proposal before voters in November, Progress Michigan would have to collect 425,059 valid petition signatures — a steep climb for any organization.

Many groups pay signature gathers to boost their chances of hitting the required thresholds. Scott said the details are still being worked out for the new campaign but he said "all options are on the table."

Because the proposal would amend the Constitution, former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who has worked on the proposal, said lawmakers wouldn't be able to adopt the proposal and amend it, as they did with proposals to require earned sick time and increase the minimum wage in 2018.

The influence of lobbyists is a problem for "everybody in this town," not just one political party, Brewer said.

Lobbyists would also have to disclose meetings they have with lawmakers and what they talk about under the proposal. Individuals falling under the proposed requirements would be those who are compensated more than $1,000 in a year to influence public officials' actions on policies. It includes former elected officials who are acting as consultants by being paid $1,000 in a year to provide advice to a group but might not be actively communicating with lawmakers.

The consultants don't fall under Michigan's current lobby laws. The state also allows former lawmakers immediately to become lobbyists and begin influencing their former colleagues when they leave office.

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a group that lobbies on behalf of businesses, said he hadn't read the new proposal as of Thursday morning. The chamber would want to ensure that individuals' right to free speech is protected, he said.

Progress Michigan has been "driven by organized labor" in the past, Studley said, adding that he would want to see whether all groups are treated the same under the proposal.

"Is their intent to advantage union lobbyists and disadvantage others?" he asked.