JACK SPENCER: Red flag this bill

Many readers are probably aware of the so-called revolving doors of politics. After serving terms in the legislature lawmakers often find jobs in or near government; either within government agencies or among the lobbying or advocacy groups that mingle in governmental circles.

Legislation currently before the House Commerce Committee could potentially produce one of these revolving doors for legislators. When viewed in this light, the bill (HB 4998) might well be labelled the “Soft Jobs For Former Lawmakers Legislation.”

Asserting that HB 4998 was willfully designed to provide jobs for former lawmakers would be going too far; that may not have been the case at all. But, if enacted, it could be used to do just that. In fact, once the current House Fiscal Agency (HFA) description of the bill is viewed from the “revolving door” angle, it is difficult to envision it not being utilized in this manner.

HB 4998 would create a work group of up to 10 members who would be called “entrepreneurs-in-residence.” As HB 4998 is now (Feb. 9, 2014) drafted, the members of this group would be fulltime paid employees on the payroll of the Michigan Strategic Fund (MSF), which is the deliberative body of the Michigan Economic Development Corps (MEDC).

MEDC is the State’s promotional and corporate welfare arm. In addition to overseeing PureMichigan advertising campaigns, the MEDC also hands out millions of dollars in subsidizes under the theoretical premise that doing so will enhance economic development and job growth.

There appears to be nothing in HB 4998 that would prevent former lawmakers from becoming “entrepreneurs-in-residence.” What’s more, the duties of the “entrepreneurs-in-residence” seem — well, a bit mushy.

According to the HFA analysis they would be:

  • assisting the Strategic Fund in improving outreach to small business concerns and entrepreneurs;
  • identifying any inefficient or duplicative economic development programs, including those implemented by local units of government;
  • facilitating meetings and forums to educate small business concerns and entrepreneurs on state and local economic development programs and incentives;
  • facilitating in-service sessions with employees of the Strategic Fund or other state and local departments and agencies on issues of interest to entrepreneurs and small business concerns;
  • and providing mentorship and technical assistance to small business concerns and entrepreneurs to aid in access to or participation in state and local economic development programs and incentives.

For those who lobby legislators on behalf of MEDC one might assume that the pending existence of a work group as described in HB 4998, with up to 10 vacant jobs to fill, would be, shall we say, “helpful.” Of course we’re all told that discussing possible future positions with lawmakers never happens — absolutely not, positively not, most definitely not. Yet, in reality it is such a commonplace occurrence that, within the ten-block radius of the Capitol, it is almost never considered newsworthy.

Some observers who simply glance at HB 4998 might see it as no more than a minor expansion of government; and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, describes it as the creation of a sort of liaison group between the private sector and government to assist those seeking subsidies as they attempt to navigate the webs of the governmental subsidy world.

Let’s be clear; when legislation such as HB 4998 is first drafted it can often contain unintended consequences. That is why Schmidt must be given the benefit of the doubt that giving MEDC a sort of slush fund of prospective jobs for termed-out lawmakers was not his intent.

According to Schmidt, “most likely” HB 4998 will be amended so that the “entrepreneurs-in-residence” will not be paid positions. In addition, Schmidt says he agrees with making that change. If HB 4998 were changed in this way, then — abracadabra — the danger would be gone and the legislation would be relatively benign; some might suggest benign in the extreme.

Unfortunately, when such a simple change can totally convert the potential impact of a bill; reversing the change could be done just as easily. For example; this might happen in the blink of an eye, with almost no one noticing it, during next December’s busy lame duck session.

That is why a bill like HB 4998 bears watching — and should be watched closely throughout the rest of the year. Again, it can’t be stressed enough that concern about this legislation could be a false alarm, and hopefully it is. However, if it isn’t — and HB 4998 was eventually enacted in its current form — all that will remain to be done would be to watch and see who gets appointed to the “entrepreneurs-in-residence” jobs.

Also worth noting is that a package of bills that would keep MEDC’s 21st Century Jobs Fund from ending is on the House Floor. At the moment, those attempting to get the package passed seem to be struggling to garner enough votes for it.

There may be no connection between the 21st Century Jobs Fund bills and HB 4998. Chances are, the package will eventually pass without any special accompanying legislation. Overanalyzing in an attempt to connect too many dots can lead to adding two plus two and getting five.

Nevertheless, the fact that a bill like HB 4998 has popped up in the House Commerce Committee while the 21st Century Job Fund package is “being worked” on the House floor does make one pause to wonder — doesn’t it?

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.