Legislators in Lansing receive a good salary, fringe benefits and an expense account, but one of the best perks — and certainly one that presents ethical minefields — consists of the free food and booze dished out to lawmakers by lobbyists.
According to a report released today by the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), Lansing lobbyists spent more than $821,000 wining and dining House and Senate members in 2017. That amounts to a 31 percent increase in lobbyists’ annual food bill since 2007.
Overall, lobbying firms and corporate lobbyists spent $39.4 million last year trying to influence legislators and legislation, based on a separate MCFN report. Because of Michigan’s loophole-ridden lobbying laws, how that money is spent remains mostly a mystery. In 2015, the national Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an “F” grade on their lobbying disclosure laws.
Craig Mauger, MCFN executive director, offers this insight:
Lobbyists’ spending on food and drink tends to rise in odd-numbered years when new lawmakers are arriving in Lansing for the first time. So, in 2017, for instance, lobbyists were working to get to know about 40 new House members who were elected for the first time in 2016.
Some of that relationship building takes place over meals. However, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much lobbyists invested in buying food for freshman lawmakers.
Lobbyists only have to disclose an official’s name in the reports if they spend more than $59 in a month or $375 in a year on food or drink for that official. Lobbyists also don’t have to disclose how much they spent buying food for individual legislative staffers.
Lobbyists can also buy food for officials in group settings, and then, they can use vague terms to describe who showed up, like ‘House members’ and ‘senators, representatives and staff.’
At the top of the list of those who lavishly take part in this food and drink is Rep. Lee Chatfield of Levering, whose district mostly lies in the Upper Peninsula. He received $3,702 worth of hospitality from the lobbying corps last year. Chatfield chairs the House Republican Campaign Committee and is hoping to become the next speaker of the House.
It’s important to remember that lawmakers are only in session about 100 days of the year, working three days a week and taking weeks off at a time when they’re in recess. However, when they’re in the capital, they’re often offered free food twice in one day by different special interest groups. And they also have their bar tabs paid at night while hanging out at their favorite watering hole.