By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — As Tesla Motors Inc. continues its fight to sell cars in Michigan, the company has increased its focus on another form of travel: lobbyist-paid trips for state lawmakers.
So far in 2016, Tesla has paid for travel and lodging for at least five state lawmakers, according to disclosures that were due at the end of August. The total cost of the five disclosed trips was $6,249. In the disclosures, Tesla describes the trips as being for “public policy meetings with company executives.”
Tesla is a California-based company that manufactures what it describes as "premium" electric vehicles and sells them directly to customers. In 2014, however, the Michigan Legislature approved a bill that helped blocked Tesla from being able to sell cars directly to buyers in the state.
State law requires that automobile manufacturers sell their vehicles through “franchised dealers.” Tesla has never had a franchised dealer, according to the company’s website.
Since 2014, Tesla has been searching for ways to sell its vehicles in Michigan. But earlier this month, the state denied Tesla’s effort to get a dealership license, according to the Detroit News.
In February 2016, first-term Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) introduced a bill, House Bill 5312, which seeks to allow Tesla to sell its vehicles in Michigan. House Republican leadership referred the bill to the House Commerce and Trade Committee.
Three of that committee’s members were among the lawmakers that received trips earlier this year paid for by Tesla, including the committee’s chair Rep. Joe Graves (R-Argentine Twp.).
According to the lobbying disclosures, Tesla paid $2,230.28 on April 4 for a trip for Graves. Two other committee members — Reps. Mike Callton (R-Nashville) and Nancy Jenkins (R-Clayton) — also received trips. Callton’s trip cost $1,407.29, and Jenkins’ trip cost $845.37. On top of those trips, Tesla paid $862.20 for a trip for House Majority Floor Leader Aric Nesbitt and $904.22 for a trip for Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park).
Tesla also disclosed spending $1,081 on food and beverage for lawmakers in the first seven months of 2016, more than it spent in 2014 and 2015 combined.
It’s possible that Tesla paid for additional trips for lawmakers that weren’t disclosed because the cost of the trips was less than the state’s disclosure threshold. Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment from MCFN. But according to the Detroit News’ reporting in May, Miller, the sponsor of the pro-Tesla bill, had gone on a trip to visit Tesla’s California headquarters.
Under the 2016 reporting thresholds, lobbyists only have to disclose travel and lodging that they paid for if the price tag is more than $775.
Tesla itself questioned the influence of money in Michigan politics in 2014. As lawmakers approved the bill to make it more difficult for Tesla to sell vehicles here, Tesla issued a press release mentioning that the lawmaker behind the change, Sen. Joe Hune (R-Hamburg), had received donations from the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association. Tesla also highlighted that Hune’s wife, Marcia, works for a lobbying firm that lobbies for the dealers.
Here is a list of other lobbyist-paid travel disclosed so far in 2016:
— In February, he Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association paid for travel and lodging for Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing) and Sen. Tory Rocca (R-Sterling Heights). Each trip cost $1,257.26. According to the disclosures, the lawmakers were speakers and panelists at the association’s winter convention.
— The Michigan Railroads Association disclosed that it paid for trips in July for Rep. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway) and Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall (R-White Lake). Lauwers’ travel and lodging cost $1,926.08 and Kowall’s travel and lodging cost $866.25. According to the disclosures, the two lawmakers were speakers at the association’s summer board meeting.