Texas No. 1 in legislators-turned-lobbyistsThey relish pay, staying in politics, but critics say system open to abuse
Thursday, October 12, 2006
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Lawmakers regularly leave office to pound the pavement as lobbyists in state capitols, but nowhere does that revolving door spin faster than in Texas, according to a report released Thursday by a national lobby-watch group.
Texas has more former legislators in the lobbying industry than any other state – 70 out of about 1,500 registered with the state, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based group.
Florida ranks second with 60. Oklahoma and New Hampshire have the highest percentage, each with 10 percent of their lobbyists having held elected office.
In Texas, many of the former lawmakers are among the highest-paid lobbyists – in a state where lobbyists give more campaign donations to lawmakers than anywhere else in the country.
The two sides
The lawmakers say lobbying is a good way for them to stay in politics and use what they've learned in office to make a good living. Critics say the system allows high-dollar stakeholders, such as corporations and interest groups, to essentially buy legislation in return for promising lawmakers a lucrative position after they leave office.
"It raises the Manchurian Candidate question: Who's in charge, and who's being represented?" said Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, which has called for a lifetime ban on lawmakers entering the lobby.
Former House speakers, former chairmen and former senators regularly appear on lists of Texas' most influential paid advocates – and they're being paid millions to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of clients that, in many cases, were directly affected by legislation passed while they were still in office.
In 2005, the five highest-paid former lawmakers earned up to $10 million collectively from their lobbying contracts.
"If you take those people out of the process, you're taking a huge amount of knowledge about how the process works, and how to provide the best and most effective education about the issues," said Jack Gullahorn, head of the Texas Advocacy Association, a lobbying industry group.
"Somebody may do something that's not good judgment, and it paints everybody with a bad brush. But most people aren't like that."
While the lobbyists say they bring expertise and experience to their clients – who range in purpose and popularity from Big Tobacco to retired teachers – critics say the new report describes a system ripe for abuse.
Even the appearance of influence peddling is enough to erode the public's confidence in the system, critics say. In Texas, lawmakers can start lobbying the moment they leave office. Critics cite the example of Rep. Todd Baxter, who helped pass a bill that favored the cable industry and resigned a few months later to lobby for cable industry. Mr. Baxter, an Austin Republican, did not return a call to discuss the issue.
But the legislators-turned-lobbyists say that while former lawmakers don't get special treatment, they bring a wealth of institutional knowledge and expertise on issues that helps them serve their clients.
Ray Allen, a former House Corrections Committee chairman from Grand Prairie who recently became a lobbyist, counts among his clients a firm that specializes in private prisons.
"Anyone who was closely watching my performance [on the committee] knows that I was not particularly close to the establishment," he said. "They hired me because I had knowledge of the legislative process and the corrections issues, and had relationship with members who are also interested in those areas."
A huge bump in pay
Lobbyists also say the money is a huge draw; legislative service pays just $7,200 a year. The average lobbyist in Texas last year had contracts worth up to $494,000.
Mr. Allen said that during his last year in office, he earned $37,000 with his handgun-training and out-of-state lobbying businesses. In his first few months as a lobbyist, he could earn up to $585,000 if his contracts are paid to the maximum.
"What looked good to me was actually making a living wage for a change after bringing home $300 a month," said Barry Telford, a former House Pensions and Investments Committee chairman who represents retired teachers when he's not earning his living in the propane business. "I get paid decently and work for a group of people I have a whole lot of empathy for."
AT TOP OF THE SALARY HEAP
The highest-paid legislators-turned-lobbyists working in Austin in 2005 and their maximum lobbying income:
-Stan Schlueter, former chairman of two powerful House committees: $2.4 million
-David Sibley, former chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee: $2.3 million
-Ron Lewis, former representative: $2.2 million
-Neal "Buddy" Jones, former representative and aide to the House speaker: $1.6 million
-Cliff Johnson, former representative and governor's aide: $1.5 million
OTHER NOTABLE FORMER LAWMAKERS NOW LOBBYING:
-Mike Toomey, former representative and governor's chief of staff
-Gib Lewis, former House speaker
-Bill Ratliff, former senator and lieutenant governor
-Dan Shelley, former representative and legislative liaison for the governor
-J.E. "Buster" Brown, former senator
-Barry Telford, former chairman, House Calendars Committee
-Bill Ceverha, former state representative
-Arlene Wohlgemuth, former chairwoman, House Human Services Committee
NOTE: Dollar figures reflect the maximum value of lobbyists' contracts. State law requires that lobbyists report their contracts in broad ranges, not precise amounts.
SOURCE: Texans for Public Justice