New law firm's partner collaborates in redress of problems with legislation

prev
next

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The partners in the new law firm Saalfeld and Stewart see no reason that attorneys should not also be lobbyists, since many would excel at lobbying.

And one of those partners, Brandon Stewart, has now proven that point with his own success in restoring a benefit that a lot of people feel should never have been removed.

Stewart represented West Michigan developers in working toward passage of Senate Bill 748 and House Bill 5157, which “grandfather in” income tax deductions for residents of Renaissance Zone developments throughout the state, a provision that had been eliminated during the administration-led streamlining of the tax code.

Stewart’s background is perfect for the job. He started out his career, fresh from his University of Michigan graduation, by literally chasing down former U.S. Representative Peter Hoekstra at Gerald R. Ford Airport. Hoekstra hired Stewart, and he worked for a few years on Capitol Hill in DC before deciding that he really wanted to move back to West Michigan.

Once back, he was Chief of Staff for Sen. Glenn D. Steil Sr. (until Steil was term-limited out of office), and then worked on the 2000 Bush presidential campaign, including a stint as an observer at that year’s recount in Florida and serving as manager of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. As these positions were winding down, Stewart decided it was time for him to go to law school.

During his years at Michigan State University College of Law, he worked for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Markman.

While he was at his first position out of law school, with a large Grand Rapids firm, Stewart started thinking it would make sense for lawyers to lobby when they encountered laws that they found hard to justify to clients. “I thought, rather than sue the state, let's just go get some of these laws fixed.” The two law firms he worked for just before partnering with Saalfeld did not share that sentiment, which is one of the many reasons Stewart decided to join Saalfeld in creating the new firm.

Saalfeld, a former Kent County Republican Party Treasurer, was quite open to the lobbying idea. Noting that attorneys have many applicable skills, Saalfeld says, “I think we really need good lobbyists in Michigan.” Because he is a Kent County Commissioner, elected in Nov. 2010, Saalfeld has not registered as a lobbyist, but says he holds the possibility open. In the meantime, both would like to focus on developing their six-month-old business-oriented firm.

Saalfeld had his own firm at the time, and Stewart says the two discussed forming a partnership for a few months before it came to fruition. Saalfeld adds, “Our philosophies are very similar, and though I'm very picky about who I would affiliate with, I felt very comfortable with Brandon.”

Saalfeld, who did his undergraduate work at the University of Nebraska and received his law degree from Northwestern University in 1992, specializes in commercial transactions, contracts, business operations, employment matters, real estate, negotiation, franchise matters, mergers and acquisitions, as well as governance and municipal matters. Stewart adds concentration in business advisory services, business formation and structuring, tax and IRS resolutions, regulatory, wills and estate planning, as well as particular specialties in automotive law and election and fundraising law.

Both attorneys have worked as in-house general counsel. Comments Stewart, “We both have that big firm background. We can do complex work, but we can do it the way it needs to be done.” They work in creative ways to achieve affordability for their clients, while staying within legal profession billing guidelines.

Stewart adds that he always had lobbying work in the back of his mind, “as a stream of business it might make sense to develop.”

When a broker friend drew his attention to the Renaissance Zone tax deduction elimination, Stewart says, “I kind of saw it as an opportunity to grab onto the issue and get involved.” He checked into the situation and found that several area developers were also concerned, but there was a lot of confusion on the exact status of the tax code provision.

A graduate of Muskegon High School, Stewart understood what that tax deduction had meant to development here, and he took on three clients who were among the concerned: Jon Rooks of Parkland Properties of Michigan, Gary Post of Port City Construction and Development Services, and Sarah Rooks, president of Watermark 920 in Muskegon. Both Post and Jon Rooks (who is not related to Sarah) develop properties in both Muskegon and Grand Rapids.

Stewart’s first task was to determine what the tax revision had actually done. Several legislators told him they were under the impression that the residents of existing Ren Zone developments had been exempted from the tax benefit's discontinuation, but Stewart found that the entire section had been eliminated, meaning that they were wrong.

Knowing Sen. Dave Hildenbrand well from when they were both Michigan staffers (Hildenbrand for Dick Posthumus at the time he was lieutenant governor), Stewart approached him and told him the story.

Hildenbrand agreed that it seemed unfair, and involved Representative Holly Hughes on the House side. Each sponsored similar bills in their respective legislative chambers.

Hughes, who represents the area around Muskegon though not Muskegon proper, worked tirelessly to push the bill through the House of Representatives. Stewart helped get his clients to Lansing for testimony at two committee hearings on the House side, and Hughes enlisted the aid of Posthumus, who is now senior advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder.

Stewart set about educating legislators on the issue at hand, while the bill sponsors continued their work. Hughes says she had given up hope that  the House bill would pass in 2011 when someone told her Speaker of the House Jase Bolger was at her desk on the last day of legislative session.

“It was after 5:00,” Hughes says. “We knew we had the votes on the floor, but until the very last day and the last hour, we didn’t have the speaker.” When Bolger put it “on the board” for a vote, it passed nearly unanimously.

Stewart says his clients are delighted. Sarah Rooks commented, “We feel like we can now keep the promises we made. The income tax benefit was a valuable tool to get people looking at our project and even into downtown Muskegon.” The ability to use such a sales tool leveraged a $12 million investment on the part of her company.

Meanwhile, Saalfeld and Stewart moved into the Select Bank Building, a Renaissance Zone project of Jon Rooks' firm in November 2011. Though they, of course, cannot benefit from the income tax legislation, they both love their new offices, and are planning a February open house there.

Gov. Snyder signed the bill into law on Jan. 17, making it Public Act 351.