LANSING -- The sweet rolls and coffee Michigan lawmakers munched on as they met with Gov.-elect Rick Snyder didn't come with a price tag -- yet.
The cost of Tuesday's continental breakfast was picked up by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge, who have contributed heavily to lawmakers this past year in an attempt to block approval for a competing Detroit-to-Windsor bridge that state and Canadian officials want built.
The Detroit International Bridge Co. wasn't doing anything wrong in feeding the lawmakers, or in having Nora Moroun, wife of bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, in the room.
But it's a sign of the major role those with business before the Legislature play in Lansing, a role that could grow next year as an especially large class of freshmen lawmakers and a governor with little previous political experience take office.
Michigan lobbyists reported spending $17.8 million on lawmakers' meals, travel, lodging, gifts and tickets to events the first seven months of 2010. Last year, they spent at least $32.1 million, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. That doesn't include spending that doesn't have to be reported because it's below certain limits.
Snyder pledged during his campaign that he wouldn't be beholden to special interest groups. He didn't accept any campaign money from political action committees, instead relying on individual donors and $6.1 million of his own money.
Many of Snyder's individual donors had ties to businesses that stand to gain from Snyder's plan to cut business taxes, such as Meijer Inc. executive Frederick G. Meijer, Dow Chemical Co. manager Ronald Emmons and Haworth Inc. President and CEO Franco Bianchi.
The Ann Arbor venture capitalist also benefited from more than $3.5 million in campaign ads paid for by the Republican Governors Association with the help of a hefty $5.4 million donation from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
It's not unusual for a pro-business governor to be elected with the help of business supporters. But if Snyder thinks his pledge to lessen lobbyists' mark on his administration means a huge change in Lansing, he needs to think again, said executive director Rich Robinson of the campaign finance network.
"He's not the only person involved in running the government," Robinson said. "There's 148 legislators who may not have his strength in being immune to the influence of lobbyists."
Snyder transition spokesman Bill Nowling, a Statehouse veteran who has worked for Republicans in both the House and Senate, said the governor-elect is fully aware of how lobbyists can hurt -- or help -- his efforts to reinvent the economically struggling state.
"It's not that he doesn't think special interests have a role in the process. They do," Nowling said Friday. "But he wanted to be able to stand up and say, `Look, I'm not beholden to anyone except the voters."'
Lobbyists' role was abundantly clear Wednesday, when the House and Senate held long sessions trying to pass bills in the short lame duck session. Dozens of lobbyists clustered outside the two chambers for hours, making sure they were on the scene to monitor bills and votes for their clients and put a word in lawmakers' ears if they could.
Michigan had 2,783 registered lobbyists last year, 500 more than in 1999, according to secretary of state figures. That means there are nearly 20 lobbyists for every lawmaker. Lobbyists last year spent nearly $12 million more annually than they did in 2001, a 59 percent increase, according to the campaign finance network,
Some Capitol regulars work for big multi-client lobbying firms such as Karoub Associates, which hosted Tuesday's freshman caucus event with Snyder at its offices a half-block east of the Capitol. Others represent businesses or unions such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan or the Michigan Education Association.
Of the top 200 lobbyists or lobbying firms, those on the lower end of the scale, such as Western Michigan University and CSX Transportation, had spent around $20,000 by the end of July. The largest amount was spent by multi-client firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc., which spent $1.3 million in 2009 and already had spent more than $720,000 this year.
GCSI, as it's better known, boasts in its company brochure that its "strong working relationships with all the political powerbrokers in Michigan ... lend you valuable access to the Governor, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader and other such political leaders of our state, which is vital to realizing your legislative goals."
It also boasts it has access to a network of powerful political action committees -- ones that can donate campaign cash to friendly lawmakers and top state officials. Especially for House members who must run for re-election every two years, those donations can be critical.
Nell Kuhnmuench, one of GCSI's five directors and a lobbyist for more than 20 years, said hiring a lobbyist is sometimes the only way a business, group or individual can make sure their voice is heard at the Capitol.
"In our world, we have laws and regulations. And every time the Legislature writes a law, every time a regulation is adopted, it impacts some entity or someone, or both," she said. "There are a lot of lobbyists ... because there are a lot of people who are impacted by government decisions, but also because one interest may differ from another.
"Those interests want to make sure they're heard as decisions are being made," she said.
Many lobbyists will play a more prominent role in the months ahead as they work to get new lawmakers up to speed on a dizzying number of issues. Twenty-nine out of 38 senators and more than 50 lawmakers in the 110-member House will be new in 2011. As Tuesday's breakfast showed, lobbyists already are reaching out to them.
Robinson said lobbyists can serve a useful purpose. But he noted that Michigan law doesn't require lobbyists to report which bills, budgets or regulations they're trying to affect, so it's hard to track their actions.
"I don't think people spend money without some purpose in mind," Robinson said. "There are too many areas where money and politics isn't reported, and it all should be."