Pandemic takes bite out of lawmakers' free food from lobbyists

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Restaurant closures and restrictions on gatherings are crimping one of the perks of serving in the Michigan Legislature: lobbyist funded meals.

Over the first seven months of the year, lobbyists reported spending $221,429 on food and drink purchases for state officials, the lowest total disclosed over that period in 19 years. The $221,429 figure represents a 62% drop from the $578,261 lobbyists reported spending over the first seven months of 2019.

Nearly two dozen bills addressing criminal justice reform are headed to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The drop in food purchases reflects another trend during the pandemic: a decline in campaign giving to state House candidates by interest groups' political action committees, said Simon Schuster, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit organization that tracks political spending. Groups have cut their spending with fewer opportunities for direct access to lawmakers.

"This year underscores that there isn’t really an alternative means to do that," Schuster said.

Groups' lobbying reports for Jan. 1 through July 31 were due to the Michigan Secretary of State on Monday.

While their spending on food and drink has dropped significantly, lobbyists' overall spending to influence officeholders has held steady this year. They reported spending $23 million over the first seven months of the year — which includes spending on food and payments to firms and individuals to directly communicate with state officials to shape policies.

In 2019, the total reported spending for the first seven months of the year was $23.2 million. In 2018, it was $21.6 million.

A sign at a restaurant in downtown Lansing near the Michigan Capitol tells people to wear masks until they are seated on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 on March 10. Six days later, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed bars and dine-in service at restaurants across the state to try to stem the spread of the virus.

Dine-in service at restaurants in most of Michigan, including the Lansing area, was allowed to restart on June 8. But indoor social gatherings remain limited to 10 people statewide

Much of the current lobbyist work is being done over the phone, said Dennis Muchmore, a longtime Lansing political figure who began lobbying about 40 years ago. The pandemic could have long-term repercussions with firms spending less on buying food and clients spending less on travel, he said.

"If you get used to not spending the money on food, when you start re-spending, the tendency is not to spend what you spent before," Muchmore said.

A lot of people are reluctant to go to restaurants or public gatherings, and many of the restaurants in downtown Lansing, which rely on government-related spending, haven't reopened, he said.

There have been golf outings this summer, but even those haven't been well attended, he added.

"And that’s probably the easiest event you can have," Muchmore said.

In Michigan, lobbyists have to report their overall spending on food and drink for officeholders, purchases for large groups of officeholders and spending for a specified lawmaker when they spend more than $63 on that lawmaker in a month or more than $400 in a year.

Eleven of the 148 members of the Legislature reportedly received more than $1,000 each in lobbyist-funded meals over the first seven months of the year. In 2019, 16 lawmakers exceeded the $1,000 mark during that time period, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The top recipient of lobbyist-funded food so far this year has been Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, co-chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee. Lobbyists reported purchasing $5,573 in food and drink for Lilly from Jan. 1 through July 31. One multiclient firm, Governmental Consultant Services Inc., disclosed spending $2,408 on food and drink purchases for Lilly.

Lobbyists reported spending $4,703 on food and drink for Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and $4,031 for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.