Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 4, 2012

Editorial: Awful lobbyist rules criticized again


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---- — So when was the last time you got a personal reply — or any reply beyond a form letter — from a local lawmaker after writing a letter or email or making a call about an issue you think is important?

But local lawmakers don't think twice about taking lunch or eating a nice dinner with a lobbyist who can bend that lawmaker's ear, one-on-one, about whatever issue the lobbyist has been hired to represent.

Lansing lobbyists spent nearly $20,000 on current northern Michigan legislators for food, drink, financial transactions and travel expenses in recent years, secretary of state records show.

But Michigan's loose reporting rules don't require lawmakers or lobbyists to identify on whose behalf lobbyists advocated at the time the money was spent, nor what causes lobbyists discussed with state senators and representatives. And there is big money — and presumably big influence — at stake.

Lansing lobbyists reported spending $20.7 million overall through the first seven months of 2012, up by 4.5 percent compared to 2011, to date a record year for lobbyists' spending. That's a lot of club sandwiches and, more importantly, a lot of private conversations about public issues that are important well beyond the Lansing influence culture.

Yes, corporations and industry groups and advocates for all kinds of concerns have a right to be heard on issues that are important to them. But the fact is they have special access that the average voter or even groups of voters never get unless they hire a lobbying firm. Insider access is all about private access, leaving voters and taxpayers on the outside.

Lobbyists have to report spending only if those expenditures exceed $57 a month or $350 a year on an individual legislator. For the summer of 2011, 66 percent of lobbyist spending was not itemized, meaning there's no way to tell who received those benefits.

That loosey-goosey record keeping and the fact that no one has to disclose the topic of a lunch meeting are a couple reasons the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an "F" grade for lobbying disclosure laws.

Rich Robinson, who directs the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the state should require lobbyists to report every dollar spent on legislators and legislators should do the same. He also thinks Michigan must mandate that lobbyists disclose what they're trying to peddle.

Seems simple, doesn't it? We elect them, we pay them and they're supposed to be doing our business. We should at least know who is getting one-on-one access for the price of a tuna melt.

So what are the odds those same legislators will change the law?