By MATTHEW BOAK and CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — The same day a Senate panel began considering whether to block local efforts to curb the use of plastic bags, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee reported receiving a $20,000 contribution from the political action committee (PAC) for one of Michigan’s largest retailers.
According to campaign finance disclosures, the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation received a $20,000 check from Meijer Inc.’s PAC on April 20. That’s the same day the Senate Commerce Committee began taking testimony on Senate Bill 853. The bill, which Meijer supports, would ban counties, cities and townships from adopting local ordinances to regulate or impose fees on the use of certain containers, like plastic bags.
Other groups that support the bill and made contributions to the Senate Republicans around April 20 say the timing had to do with the fact that April 20 was the end of the state fundraising quarter and with the fact that the Senate GOP had a fundraiser in early May.
Local ordinances to combat plastic bags — one of which has already been put in place in Washtenaw County — are backed by environmentalists but could cost businesses, like Meijer, Kroger, Walmart and many others that rely on plastic bags.
That bill has set off a debate between business groups that have given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to lawmakers over the years, including the $20,000 Meijer contribution, and environmental groups that have made their own contributions to lawmakers, on a much smaller scale.
In addition to the Meijer contribution, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee also reported receiving money from PACs for the Michigan Retailers Association ($2,500) and the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers ($1,000) on April 20 — the day of the committee hearing. Both of those groups are also supporters of the bill.
While Meijer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on its contribution, Tom Scott, a spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association, said the money his organization gave was for tickets to the Senate GOP's May 4 fundraiser (see invitation by clicking on the link).
“… We wanted to make the April 20 reporting deadline for the quarterly report,” Scott added.
Likewise, Daniel Papineau, director of government relations for the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, said his PAC's donation was also for the May 4 event. His PAC actually wrote the check on March 3, Papineau said. It's unclear why the Senate Republicans reported receiving it on April 20.
Papineau also re-stated his organization’s support for Senate Bill 853.
“Unfortunately, some local governments believe creating a patchwork of legislation across the state is OK and a hodgepodge of policies pitting neighboring retailers against each other is OK for small businesses across our state,” he added. “The truth is these communities are steering shoppers to alternatives that are actually worse for the environment.”
Sponsored by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), the bill passed the full Senate in May, less than two months after it was introduced.
It’s viewed by many as a response to efforts in Muskegon County and Washtenaw County to take local action against the use of plastic bags, which are viewed by some as a threat to the environment. In June, Wasthenaw County passed an ordinance imposing a 10-cent “eco fee” on all single-use plastic bags distributed at grocery stores in the county.
In his committee testimony in April, Stamas said by blocking such local ordinances, he hoped to prevent a “piecemeal” approach to regulating bags. Likewise, Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake), one of five members of the Commerce Committee, said having a variety of bag ordinances across the state could make it difficult for businesses to adhere to the varied rules.
“I am concerned that by each community passing different ordinances, it’s going to create a problem,” as Kowall said.
Opponents of the bill have focused on arguing that the bill is an overreach by the state. Local elected officials should be able to make the decision for themselves, opponents have said repeatedly. Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, also a Democratic candidate for the State House this year, criticized the use of plastic bags during his committee testimony in April.
“They’re littering our country,” he said. “And they’re littering our state. And they’re littering our waterways.”
After two days of testimony, the Senate Commerce Committee sided with the business groups, voting 4-1 on April 27 to advance Senate Bill 853 to the full Senate. The full Senate approved the bill in a 25-12 vote on May 10.
Thirty of the 37 state senators who voted on May 10 have taken campaign money from one of seven core groups that have weighed in on the bill.
MCFN tracked the contributions of five groups in favor of the bill — Meijer’s PAC, the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers' PAC, the Michigan Retailers Association's PAC, the Michigan Forest Products Council's PAC and the Michigan Grocers Association's PAC — and PACs for two groups that oppose it — the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. Those two groups are the main environmental groups in Michigan that operate PACs.
Combined, these seven groups’ PACs have raised about $807,677 since the beginning of 2013. Meijer has been the biggest player of the seven, raising a $578,572 over that time period. The five supporting groups raised about $703,919. The two opposing groups raised about $103,758.
The seven groups have given a combined $151,566 directly to committees controlled by members of the Senate since the start of 2013 (that does not include contributions to caucus committees). The wide majority of the amount — $143,816 — has come from the business groups that are in favor of Senate Bill 853.
Among the biggest beneficiaries of the groups’ giving have been key lawmakers working on the bills. Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) has received the most from the seven groups at $12,950. He is one of the five members of the Senate Conference Committee. Of his total, $12,000 came from the Meijer PAC while $450 came from the Forest Products Council PAC. The committee’s chair, Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), has received $10,050 from the groups: $9,000 from Meijer; $200 from the Grocers Association; $250 from the Forest Products Council; $500 from the League of Conservation Voters; and $100 from the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.
According to a campaign finance disclosure, Schmidt also reporting having a reception at a lobbying firm in Lansing on April 20. He raised $4,250 at the event, according to the filing.
The Senate’s 10 Democrats opposed the bill. Since the start of 2013, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) has received $1,150 from the League of Conservation Voters. He’s also received $2,000 from Meijer, $1,100 from the Michigan Retailers Association and $500 from the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.
Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), who spoke out against the bill in May, has received $750 from the League of Conservation Voters and $250 from the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.
Of the seven groups, Meijer has given to the most senators, giving to 22 of the 37 senators since the start of 2013. For comparison, the League of Conservation Voters’ PAC has given to 10 of them.
Representatives of Meijer didn’t testify at the April 20 hearing. However, Andrew Martin, a Meijer lobbyist, said at the meeting, that the company was supportive of the bill, according to meeting minutes.
Amber McCann, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), declined to comment on the timing of the Meijer contribution and the committee hearing, saying she doesn’t comment on political contributions.
Rabhi, who attended one of the Senate Commerce Committee meetings on the bill, said special interest groups seemed to be virtually “running the room.” Rabhi, who is a heavy favorite to win the 53rd District seat in the State House in November, said the situation gave him a firsthand look into how “special interest groups” operate in Michigan.