WSW: Tracking How Lobbyists Spend Money Isn't Easy
Michigan lobbyists spent more than $37-million trying to influence state lawmakers last year.
Not all of the money has been reported so the total is likely to exceed the record set in 2012. Michigan Campaign Finance Network Director Rich Robinson told WMUK’s Gordon Evans that most of the money is spent on salaries for people who do the lobbying. He says other money is spent direct mail and hospitality, travel and accommodations provided to state lawmakers.
The list of the top 10 spenders on lobbying includes groups such as the Michigan Health and Hospital Association and the Michigan Education Association. But most of the biggest spenders are professional firms that represent multiple clients. Robinson says that leaves only an outline of what’s being spent, but not much in the way of details of who the lobbyists are with when the money is spent.
Spending on lobbying activity is only reported twice a year. But Robinson says the calendar is skewed in a way that keeps voters from knowing about the spending when it would be more useful. The first report is not due until September first, which comes after the primary election in an even year. The second report, covering the last five months of the year, isn’t due until February. Robinson says many firms file their second report late.
Robinson describes the money spent on food, drink and entertainment for lawmakers is “a form of welfare” (or SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Politicians). He says unless a lobbyist spends $58.00 in a month or at least $350.00 in a calendar year they don’t have to report the beneficiary. Robinson says that leaves a lot of spending on entertainment, food, beverage and travel that can’t be connected to an individual lawmaker. Robinson says all such spending by lobbyists on people they are trying to influence should be reported.
It’s illegal for lobbyists to give a gift to someone they could be trying to influence. But Robinson says there are also reporting thresholds on gifts. That could allow tickets to a sporting event, concert or theater performance to go unreported.
A ballot proposal on the May ballot would raise the state sales tax 1% as part of a package to boost road funding. The supporters of the proposal have reported raising $3.2-million. Robinson says most of that has come from the road builders’ industry. Opponents of the proposal have reported raising any money yet.
Robinson says additional campaign reports will be filed in April. He says unlike candidate elections, ballot campaigns are open to corporate and union money. Robinson says by the time the election is held we should have a pretty clear picture of who is spending money to support and oppose the sales tax increase.