State of Neglect: Revolving door lets lawmakers profit from Capitol floor time
By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
For the weak and the vulnerable, Texas has long been an especially hard place. Year after year, national surveys place the state at or near the bottom in such categories as assistance to poor children and the malnourished, treatment of the mentally ill and care of the disabled. This story is part of The Dallas Morning News' 'State of Neglect' series examining how the state determines whom it protects and whom it excludes– and how special interests and their lobbyists strongly influence the writing of laws and the workings of state government.
If J.E. "Buster" Brown had done it in Sacramento, Albany, more than two dozen other state capitals or in Washington, D.C., he might have been fined or sent to jail.
Because he did it in Austin, it was all legal, and in just the first three months of doing it, he made half a million dollars.
Brown went through the revolving door – left the Legislature and immediately became a lobbyist. While most states and the federal government make former lawmakers wait a certain period before they start lobbying, Texas doesn't. Scores of ex-lawmakers now make a living trying to influence their former colleagues, and like Brown, they didn't have to pause between jobs.
Brown first registered as a lobbyist just one month after leaving the state Senate on Aug. 29, 2002, following 22 years as one of the state's most powerful politicians. In the remainder of 2002, five clients paid the Lake Jackson Republican between $400,000 and $650,000 to lobby on energy and water – topics that had been under his purview just weeks earlier as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee – as well as on shipping and Indian gambling.
In the years since Brown left the Senate, he has reported being paid between $6.49 million and $9.65 million by interests as varied as liquor stores and T. Boone Pickens. The Texas Ethics Commission requires only that lobbyists report ranges of income, not exact figures.
Brown said that while his job change didn't cause problems, he understands revolving-door concerns and wouldn't have objected to a waiting period. As long as Texas doesn't have one, he said, ex-legislators need to avoid conflicts of interest.
"If lobbyists who have been [legislative] members conduct themselves well, there won't be a flareup," he said. "You can't write enough ethics rules to make people act right if they're determined not to."
Cashing in on legislative experience is a favorite Texas calling – a 2005 investigation by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity found that Texas led all states, with 70 former legislators registered as lobbyists. But it doesn't sit well with everyone.
"Right now, I can leave the Legislature and, the next day, hang out my shingle. It is amazing," said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who said she favors a mandatory cooling-off period, if not an outright ban, on former members lobbying current ones.
"I have always been vocally opposed to the revolving door," Nelson said. "It just doesn't feel right. I don't want people questioning: Is she filing that bill because she hopes to cash in on that at some point in the future? I would rather be boiled in oil."
Thirty states require some kind of cooling-off period when their legislators leave office, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Six states – Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and New York – mandate a two-year ban. One year is the law in 19 states. Others have varying restrictions.
Former U.S. representatives are banned for a year; former U.S. senators, for two years. Under a 2007 law passed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, names of those in the waiting period are published on the Internet.
Although Texas doesn't restrict former legislators, a state ban does apply to ex-state agency heads and commissioners. They can't lobby their old agencies for two years; they can lobby other entities, such as the Legislature.
Gov. Rick Perry has a written policy of making former senior aides wait a year before lobbying the governor's office. Covered employees must acknowledge the policy in writing, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said in an e-mail.
At least 17 former Perry aides are now registered lobbyists, a comparison of payroll and lobbying records shows.
A 2007 bill by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would have made the waiting period for the governor's staff a requirement of state law instead of an office policy never emerged from the Senate State Affairs committee.
Attempts to rein in ex-legislators have met similar fates. In 2007, Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi, filed bills to mandate a two-year wait. Both bills died in the House Elections committee.
"The rationale is easy and straightforward," Garcia said in a recent interview. "It's so a serving member doesn't spend the final part of a term feathering the bed for some contractor." He cited five former legislators from his district who are now lobbyists.
Garcia said his bill never had a chance. "Folks said, 'Somebody files this biannually, and we just laugh it off.'"
During his 2008 re-election campaign, Garcia portrayed his Republican opponent, Todd Hunter, as a symbol of the revolving door.
Hunter was a four-term legislator who left the House in early 1997. Already the head of a Corpus Christi law firm, he immediately became a lobbyist for interests including hospitals, chemical makers and insurance companies, receiving as much as $2.83 million through 2007, the last year he registered as a lobbyist.
Hunter responded by noting that Garcia's campaign received money from some of the same legislators-turned-lobbyists he was targeting. So did Hunter's campaign, reports show.
Hunter beat Garcia in November and this month returns to Austin, once again a representative.
As a lobbyist, Hunter said, knowing procedures and issues was more important than knowing individuals. Now that he's back in office, Hunter said he would have no objection to a mandatory waiting period for lobbying by ex-legislators, but he'd want a really tough one, perhaps five years – a move that would almost certainly doom any such attempt.
"I think one or two years is ineffective," he said. "If there is a concern by the public, then it needs to have teeth."
Staff writer Gregg Jones and researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.
Texas' highest-paid lobbyists
Texas lobbyists are, in most cases, required by law only to report broad ranges of earnings, not specific amounts. The totals below are based on the maximum the lobbyists reported earning in 2007, the last year the Legislature was in session. Lobbying totals are always higher in legislative years.
SOURCES: Texas Ethics Commission, Texas Public Employees Association, Legislative Reference Library of Texas, official biographies, staff reports from The Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman.
Analysis and research: staff writer Ryan McNeill