By RAY WILBUR
For The Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — If money is power in politics, an association that represents beer and wine distributors may wield the most power in Michigan politics heading into the new legislative session.
An analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) of lists of top donors for individual state lawmakers found that the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (MB&WWA) appears more frequently on the lists than any other interest group or family of donors.
And it’s not even close.
Out of the 147 lawmakers currently in the Legislature, 94 — about 64 percent — have MB&WWA as one of their top eight campaign donors, according to the data, which is based on publicly available disclosures through Jan. 11, 2017.
No other donor was among the top eight for more than 60 lawmakers.
Insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan appeared on the lists the second most frequently, according to MCFN’s tracking. It was among the top eight donors to 54 lawmakers.
In third place, according to the data, was DTE Energy. The electric utility, which like Blue Cross Blue Shield, usually gives through an employee-funded political action committee (PAC), was among the top eight donors to 49 lawmakers.
All three — DTE, Blue Cross Blue Shield and MB&WWA — give to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
West Michigan’s powerful DeVos family appeared among the top eight donors for 46 lawmakers. Unlike, MB&WWA, Blue Cross Blue Shield and DTE, the DeVos family focuses contributions on Republicans, who currently control both chambers of the Michigan Legislature.
The data doesn’t include donations to political parties and to caucus committees.
The fact that MB&WWA led other interest groups in this measure of giving to lawmakers wasn’t surprising to individuals who’ve opposed the beer and wine wholesalers on policies in the past, including former Rep. Tom Hooker, a conservative Republican from Byron Center.
“They hold an unprecedented amount of power in this state,” Hooker said last week.
Hooker served six years in the House with his final term ending last year. In 2016, he confronted MB&WWA head on when he introduced a bill to increase the beer tax by almost 5 cents per 12-ounce can, proposing to use the extra tax money for drug treatment courts and other state recovery programs. The bill would have generated an estimated $60 million each year for treatment programs.
Hooker’s bill didn’t make it out of committee and found little support. It had no co-sponsors, which Hooker said was a result of the association’s influence.
“I think certainly the bill was influenced by the money that pours into lawmakers,” Hooker said. “When you introduce that type of bill, you really don’t expect it to go far.”
According to the association’s website, MB&WWA represents alcohol distributors across the state, including small craft breweries, which would be forced to increase prices if the state’s alcohol tax increased.
Michigan is fifth in the nation for number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs. The state has the 28th highest alcohol tax.
Asked about the organization’s high level of political giving Spencer Nevins, president of MB&WWA, responded in an emailed statement.
“The Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association is proud to participate politically to advocate for the 5,000 men and women who work at independent, locally-owned beer and wine distributors across our state, and to help Michigan’s craft brewers, winemakers and local retailers compete, grow and thrive on a level playing field,” Nevins said in the statement.
The MB&WWA spent $64,142 on lobbying efforts in 2016, according to lobbying disclosures. As of Oct. 20, 2016, the association’s PAC was the eighth largest in the state for the two-year election cycle.
The top donor lists used in this analysis are maintained by MCFN and track contributions to lawmakers back to 2010.
Here are the donors MCFN found appearing on the lists of top eight donors most frequently for the 147 lawmakers serving in the Legislature currently (Rep. Brian Banks, whose resignation was announced on Monday, isn’t included):
1. Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association, 94 lawmakers
2. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, 54 lawmakers
3. DTE Energy, 49 lawmakers
4. DeVos family, 46 lawmakers
5 (tie). Michigan Health & Hospital Association, 33 lawmakers
5 (tie). United Auto Workers, 33 lawmakers
7. Auto Dealers of Michigan, 32 lawmakers
8. Michigan Association of Realtors, 30 lawmakers