Editorial: Slow down the revolving door
The revolving door keeps spinning in Lansing, delivering politicians from their elected offices into high-paid lobbying jobs with barely a moment in between.
At least seven state officials who found themselves without posts when their terms expired on Jan. 1 are now at work trying to influence their former colleagues, according to a Detroit News report.
Among them: former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who in his campaign for governor advocated a two-year waiting period between the time a politician leaves office and when he or she can register as a lobbyist.
Also on the list are former state Reps. Tim Greimel and Robert Kosowski, and former state Sens. Dave Hildenbrand, Goeff Hansen and Dave Knezek.
In addition, new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has hired several former lobbyists to staff key positions in her administration, including Daniel Eichinger (who lobbied for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs) as director of the Department of Natural Resources, and Liesl Clark (who ran a green energy lobbying firm) as environmental quality director.
Twenty-six states have laws requiring cooling-off periods ranging from one to six years before elected officials can do lobbying work. Michigan only bans politicians from resigning during their terms to become lobbyists.
The waiting periods reduce ethical conflicts and ease public concerns about the cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.
The threat is that lawmakers and others nearing the end of their terms will exchange favorable treatment for interest groups in exchange for the promise of future jobs.
Waiting periods also guard against politicians using information they were privy to in the Legislature to boost their lobbying value.
Michigan has one of the weakest ethics laws in the nation governing its elected officials, and as a result gets a failing grade for transparency and accountability from the Center for Public Integrity.
Adopting a lobbying waiting period would be one step toward strengthening ethics laws and assuring the public that elected officials are serving their interests.
Beyond that, the state must put in place clearer rules for the interaction between lobbyists and lawmakers. The current reporting requirements for meals, gifts, travel and tickets are skimpy, and allow considerable room for lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers who are making critical decisions affecting their clients.
Term limits have contributed to the problem. Lawmakers are constantly looking ahead to their next job, and when they run out of political offices to seek, lobbying is an attractive alternative.
There's also always a fresh crop of green lawmakers who need schooling on issues, increasing the demand for lobbyists with an understanding of the legislative process.
Turning to the Legislature to fill this ethical gap is a long shot. The Legislature has been reluctant to hold itself to higher standards. Current lawmakers have their own future careers to consider.
In other states, including Florida, voters have adopted cooling-off periods at the ballot. Florida's recently passed law requires a six year wait, the longest in the nation.
Michigan is ready for a ballot proposal that would strengthen ethics rules across the board for lawmakers, including adding a reasonable waiting periods between legislating and lobbying.