www.mybaycity.com July 28, 2012
Columns Article 7212


(L/R) Edwin Bender, executive director, Institute for Money in State Politics; Dennis Muchmore, chief of staff, Gov. Rick Snyder; Patrick Harrington, partner, MHSA, Jon Smalley, MHSA; Sandi Jones MHSA

FOLLOW THE MONEY: Who Calls Shots in Michigan Politics? At What Cost?

Little-Known Lansing Lobbying Firm Rated No. 1 In State Political Poll

July 28, 2012
By: Dave Rogers


Not even Congress can clean up the system. Only the people can get it cleaned up, putting on pressure from the country at large. --Larry Makinson, Sunlight Foundation

Ever heard of Muchmore, Harrington, Smalley & Associates (MHSA) lobbying firm in Lansing?

How about the National Institute of Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana?

A few clicks of the computer mouse may be enlightening to you, as it was to me, about who runs things in Michigan -- and the nation -- and how and why things happen, or don't.

A poll of state political leaders by Bill Ballenger's Inside Michigan Politics newsletter revealed that MHSA, an acronym that sounds like a state agency, has rocketed to the top of Michigan political puppet-masters in just two decades.

The firm's movers and shakers have helped bring us such benefits, or curses depending on how you see them -- the $400 million Cobo Hall expansion in Detroit, a water withdrawal act and the Nestle Ice Mountain spring water bottling plant, Comerica Park and Midfield Terminal, charter schools, repeal of residency requirements for first responders and the Single Business Tax.

The firm's statement of purpose says it all: "MHSA specialized services and professional staff help our clients navigate the Michigan Government and provide access to the decision makers for public policy, state budget issues, economic development projects and procurement opportunities with the State of Michigan."

Nuttin' wrong wit dat, you may say. Except that such firms are a conduit for money in politics; perhaps understandable in this day and age of "money talks" but worth a tut-tut or two by old time believers in straightforward actions by government officials untainted by what amounts to bribery.

If you haven't heard of Patrick Harrington, Jon Smalley and Sandra Jones, you might start following their careers because their work no doubt will change the way your state operates and may either cost you money or save you money.

Harrington, 55, is a Spartan, a lawyer and a hockey fan; Smalley, 62, is a Chippewa and a motorcyclist; Jones, 42, nee Lewis, is a Bronco (the only female president of the Western Michigan University student body).

Dennis Muchmore, 65, a former legislator like Harrington, has moved on to bigger fields: he is now chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder. He has worked both sides of the aisle so he knows the rope line. He admits being drawn to the Guv because he refused to take money from special interests -- a man after our own heart although some of his pals have no such scruples.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics is the only nonpartisan, nonprofit organization revealing the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and public policy in all 50 states.

One of the institute's points of interest is the just-launched Democratic push for a constitutional amendment to limit the role of big money in elections as allowed in the infamous Citizens United decision.

"Free and fair elections are a founding principle of our democracies, they should not be for sale to the highest bidder," Sen. Mark Udall of New Mexico told Newsweek. "We must do something: The voice of the people is clear and so is their disgust."

Buddy Roemer, former Republican governor of Louisiana, who is on our list of "good guys nobody listens to" says: "If the Supreme Court wouldn't change its mind on the subject, (unlimited undisclosed political contributions) a constitutional amendment is the only way to reverse the decision. Our system is broken, Mr. Chairman," Roemer told a Senate committee. "It will not be repaired by those who profit from its impairment."

A lot of the Democratic outrage, of course, is driven by moneybags Sheldon Adelson's boast that he will spend $100 million to help defeat President Obama.

At least, Mr. Adelson is willing to stand up and tell exactly what his goal is, as amazing as it is. The question is: how would casino magnate Adelson justify that kind of expenditure? Would Mitt Romney's election put more money he doesn't need in his pocket? Or is this just a personal crusade he is on?

The bigger question, that many on both sides of the aisle are asking, is this really how we want our country to run? Is this really the be-all, end-all of democracy? Will it still be democracy? Or plutocracy? (rule by the rich, that even the ancient Romans and Greeks found tiresome).

By the way, Mitt Romney should have felt right at home in London, perhaps the best example of a plutocracy where corporate representatives are the voters. But, alas, his wisdom didn't measure up to his money in his recent Olympic comments.

The Institute touts its "comprehensive and verifiable campaign-finance database and relevant issue analysis are available for free through our Web site FollowTheMoney.org."

NIMSP asserts that it "encourages transparency and promotes independent investigation of state-level campaign contributions by journalists, academic researchers, public-interest groups, government agencies, policymakers, students and the public at large."

Who pays for this public interest initiative? Well, foundations like Ford, Carnegie, MacArthur, Pew, Rockefeller, Hewlett . . . and Sunlight, founded by lawyer Michael Klein.

So it's gratifying to this corner to learn where to find information about who's jerking the chains of Michigan government and who's paying the tab for the jerking.

In 1999, with Mr. Klein's initiative, three regional groups joined forces to reveal the influence of special-interest contributors on state elections: "The National Institute on Money in State Politics is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased documentation and research on campaign finance at the state level."

Located in Helena, Montana, the Institute collects reports submitted to agencies in every state by all candidates for statewide office, the legislature, and state Supreme Court; major political party committees; non-bond ballot measure committees, and lobbyists.

The Institute's massive database is intended to inform public debate on state policy issues and help people make sense of the numbers. The Institute publishes studies and provides technical assistance and training to reporters, academic researchers and public interest groups that work on state policy issues.

The institute states: "We believe that knowledgeable voters are the strongest foundation of democracy. Our data is freely presented to the nation.

Good for them! And for us, if we use the information gathered wisely in selecting our representatives. ###

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