September 21, 2018

Northern Michigan Lawmakers Belly Up to the Lobbyist Trough

Guest Opinion
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Nov. 11, 2017

The elected officials we send to Lansing just love to be wined and dined like royalty, and there's no shortage of lobbyists vying to pick up the tab. Rich Robinson, the former director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit, non-partisan watchdog organization, sardonically referred to it as food assistance for the legislature. The current director, Craig Mauger, sums up the situation with this: "If you’re a state official who likes free food, 2017 is shaping up to be another good year."

They're a peckish lot, our leaders, gobbling up $540,598 in lobbyist groceries in the first seven months of this year. That averages out to around $9,000 per House session day (about 60 of them in all) from the latest reporting period of Jan. 1 to July 31. This is the second highest amount for that period, with 2015 barely edging out 2017's girthsome totals.

It seems that all that hard lawmaking work, combined with the nearly $72,000 in annual famine-level wages, has left them feeling rumbly in the tumbly. Sixteen chowhound lawmakers in particular can't seem to get enough lobbyist grub in their growling gullets, having been served-up in excess of $1,000 each in various delectables and libations. Lobbyists prefer to train them to the feedbag early; five of the group are freshman lawmakers. Hungry pups. Eight of those supersize eaters represent northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Gluttony must be endemic to the region.

Topping the $1,000-plus hungry hippo list we find Republican House member Lee Chatfield, who represents the Tip of the Mitt and the eastern Upper Peninsula. His district can proudly declare they're No. 1, with their man in Lansing breaking bread with lobbyists at a price tag of nearly $2,600 in just a few month’s time. Sliding in at places sixth, seventh, eighth, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 16th, respectively, are Sen. Jim Stamas, Reps. Scott Dianda, Scott VanSingel, Larry Inman, Daire Rendon, Curtis Vanderwall, and Beau LeFave — Republicans all, save Dianda. Their combined seven-month tab came in at $11,189. That's a lot of rich fare for those middle-aged guts to tackle. Perhaps the lobbyists will spring for gym memberships too.

The party's just getting started folks.

The remaining Up North lawmakers who didn't score a seat with the elite diners club also added to the total quite handsomely. Senator Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City, and his fellow Republican to the east, Rep. Tristan Cole, were seated at the children's table this year, missing the short list by just a hair. Between the two, they gobbled up just shy of $1,500 at the lobbyist buffet. How disappointing. Would it have killed them to order another appetizer? Sorry guys. Better luck next year.

Other regional elected officials added several thousand more to the bill, bringing the tab to around $14,400 for 14 individuals.

We learn about the gastronomic habits of our lawmakers, not due to some compelling urge to self-report but because registered lobbyists are required to keep detailed records of their spending and, by law, must disclose them twice a year. Yet, the rules governing the reporting process allow for most of the spending to slip through the regulatory cracks, or in this case, chasms. Lobbyists are obliged to catalogue expenses for large group events, but are not legally bound to report the names of the individual officials attending, unless the amount exceeds $59 per month, per office holder, or $375 per year.  All other meals not meeting those thresholds are simply reported as a lump sum.

Here's how that looks for the latest reporting period: Of the $540,598 total, only $240,463 was fully disclosed, with $171,463 dedicated to group expenses, and $68,679 naming specific officials. That leaves $300,135 of miscellaneous food and drink expenses. Additionally, it's only registered lobbyists reporting. If a business tycoon or special interest group takes a lawmaker out for a lavish night on the town, the public will never know about it.

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American household spent $3,154 on food away from home last year. A substantial amount of that was undoubtedly procured on a tray or in a drive-through bag — caviar of the masses. Surprisingly, a recent study found that the biggest fast-food spenders are middle-class families, not those struggling to put food on the table. Feeding America.org calculates that the average cost of a meal in Michigan is $2.75, meaning a person could be nourished for about $3,000 a year. Yet in our state, 1.5 million people struggle to put food on the table. That's one in seven people, and more shockingly, it's one in six children.

The food-drive season in Michigan is well upon us. Our well-fed elected officials in Lansing are all-in for promoting donations, and that would be about the end of it. Gubernatorial hopeful and current Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson recently did a media blast demonstrating their dedication to combating the problem by offering generic quotes in a press release designed to encourage generosity. They actually cited statistics of the tonnage of food they collected last year. It was 11 tons, for the curious.

The media likes the term "food insecurity." An activist friend of mine blasts that characterization. She insists we call it what it is: hunger. A word Lansing just doesn't understand.

Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally known artist, and a public-policy wonk and political essayist at Democracy-Tree.com. She and her husband have lived in the Grand Traverse area since 1980, where they raised two children. Both have been involved in local politics and political campaigns. 

 

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