Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Maybe We Should Elect the Lobbyists

How would that work? Perhaps with the "partisan" and "non-partisan" sections on the ballot, we could add a "corporate" section as well. List what companies or organizations are involved in hiring lobbying firms, list their main issue, and we could base the number of lobbyists they could have on the number of votes cast. Or something. Sound good?

One thing that Governor Granholm has mentioned a couple of times now in these exit interviews is the "disproportionate" influence of lobbyists on legislation in Lansing, and, with the upcoming budget and proposed business tax cuts, it's worth bringing this to the forefront once again. Sure, we talk about it, we know it is happening, but I don't think we can stress enough the difficulty lobbyists are adding to the mix when it comes to solving the tough budget issues. Here is the Governor with Kyle Melinn of MIRS:

MIRS: What’s been your experience with lobbyists here in Michigan? What would your postscript be on lobbyists here?

G: I think lobbyists have too much power. Every loophole in our tax code has a lobbyist that’s attached to it. The lobbyists become personal friends with people and therefore it’s difficult for legislators to vote against somebody that has been a friend or has helped to fund their campaigns. The lobbyists have a huge amount of influence over the legislature, and I think that’s unfortunate. Not that they’re not nice people, but they have a disproportionate - far disproportionate - impact over legislation than everyday citizens do. That’s why, those who come to Lansing should be the voice for everyday citizens and not end up being the voice for the lobbyists, but, time spent here in Lansing means you end up socializing with lobbyists, and that’s unfortunate.

I’ve never gone to lunch with a lobbyist. We’ve made it a policy… I bring my own lunch everyday to work, I don’t allow lobbyists to buy meals for me and I haven’t spent a lot of time with them. It’s one of the reasons why in Lansing, I’m not that popular among the lobbying community because I haven’t spent personal time with them.

But they have a far greater impact than everyday citizens would imagine.

MIRS: Is there anything we can do about that?

G: Well I think transparency in who is funding campaigns is critical. The lobbyists, they’re doing their jobs, they are doing a good job at it. They represent companies and those who want certain benefits. Those companies, corporations who want certain benefits, a tax provision written on their behalf, they can give unlimited amounts of money, undisclosed, to a political party, and have the political party run ads on their behalf. Unlimited amounts of money. And they can come directly from the corporate checkbook. that is wrong. That is not a way that the citizens can feel that their elected representatives are really representing them, and not representing the interests of a lobbyist.

Campaign finance reform is definitely something we need to do, but probably won't come outside of a citizen's ballot proposal. (Someone want to finance that? Please?) But that won't happen before the next budget is written, and the next budget is going to be the problem. Snyder seems to be flying in the face of recent Republican obstruction when he calls for a look at trimming tax credits that the above mentioned lobbyists worked so hard to get.

First of all - and this one has to be like chewing tinfoil to some of our better Republican spinmeisters out there - Snyder correctly labels tax breaks as "spending".

"Tax expenditures should be looked at," Snyder said at a news conference Wednesday when asked if he favored closing tax loopholes.

"I don't know if I would describe that as new revenue or less spending."

Hint: Go with "less spending". But we aren't sure either, because the former Republican Senate wouldn't even dream of considering the idea.

Treasury Department reports have pegged the cost of "tax expenditures," which include credits, deductions and exemptions, at more than $30 billion.

When Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm sought to close certain tax loopholes, many Republicans in the Legislature denounced the move as a veiled tax increase.

"It's tough for the Democrats to get them through; it's tough for the Republicans to get them through," Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants said of eliminating tax loopholes.

"Behind every tax expenditure is a potent lobby."

Yes, we've heard. And given that our elected officials are now threatened with removal from office in the form massive campaign spending should they anger the wrong corporation by trimming a tax credit, does Snyder even have a hope of getting Republican votes to pull this off? The wail of "lost jobs" will loom large from the business sector, to be sure. But chances are, they will go after the low-hanging fruit in the form of the EITC credit and the film credits first. Is anyone lobbying for the poor and the creative class?

Snyder is calling for "shared sacrifice" in the face of a 1.8B deficit and a $1.5B plan to cut business taxes. It appears that public employees are going to be doing a lot of the "sharing" here - but the tax breaks are coming up as well.

Administration officials say they’re combing through Michigan’s business tax code to identify tax breaks and loopholes that can be eliminated to provide the revenue necessary to pay for it. Lobbyists for the firms that benefit from those breaks, however, say Snyder risks creating another round of winners and losers that resulted from the 2007 tax debate that produced the MBT.

And then they might stop buying lawmakers lunch. That would be a shame, wouldn't it?

Hope that the media stays on top of the "winners and losers", because something tells you that the best lobbyists are going to be on the winning side of any new business tax code that comes about. It's something to watch for, that's for sure.