Panel approves ballot language for lobbying reform plan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Board of State Canvassers on Wednesday approved the ballot language and petition form for a proposal that would reform Michigan’s lobbying rules despite concerns from some board members about the proposal’s reach. 

The proposal would ban state lobbyists from buying meals or providing anything of value to state lawmakers and create a two-year cooling-off period before former elected officials could become lobbyists. 

The proposal also would require lobbyists to disclose publicly what issues they’re discussing with lawmakers and require any person who pays for public communication meant to influence a public official to disclose as much to the Secretary of State's department.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured in December 2019.

Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, questioned the broad definition of "public official" and criticized the reach of the proposal, which would apply to hundreds of members on state boards and commissions. 

“The people on the asparagus board have to keep daily logs,” Shinkle said of the implications of the proposal. “…Do you know how many boards there are out there?”

But proponents of the proposal pushed back, arguing that Michigan residents have a right to know who is attempting to influence legislators. 

“This will require a change of culture in this city and in state government,” said Mark Brewer, a lawyer for Progress Michigan, the liberal group spearheading the ballot proposal. “It is a change of culture that has been done successfully in many state capitols across the country.” 

Michigan law currently allows lobbyists to buy food for elected officials, fund trips and provide gifts that cost less than $63.

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.

"This certainly brings a transparency that is needed to Lansing and takes the power away from the lobbyists and puts it back in the hands of the people, said Lonnie Scott, executive director for Progress Michigan.

Progress Michigan, the liberal group leading the Coalition to Close Lansing Loopholes, expects to start collecting the 425,059 valid petition signatures it needs in the next couple of weeks. The group has until July to collect the signatures within a 180-day window.

“We have had an overwhelming amount of support from folks contacting us, reaching out, asking how they can get petitions,” said Scott, who hoped to gather signatures from individuals participating in the March 10 presidential primary. 

Because the proposal would amend the Constitution, 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.

Individuals falling under the proposed requirements largely 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.

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed