Spinning Out of Control?

Business Is Booming

This legislative session, billions of dollars are riding on issues like electric deregulation, telephone regulation, and tax breaks for high-tech business. Simply put, the government business is big business. "When I came to the Legislature in 1962, our biennial budget in 1963 was just over $1 billion," says Clayton, who recalls that in those days the lobby consisted of a handful of special interests. "Back in them days there were the big four -- the railroads, Continental Oil and Gas, the Texas Manufacturers Association, and the Texas Chemical Council. Beyond them, it fell off pretty fast. There wasn't over a hundred lobbyists in town during the session." Compare that, says Clayton, to this year's session. "What will the budget be this time? Why, it'll be $90 billion if it's a nickel," he says. "And that means more people, more product, more programs, more initiatives that need outsourcing, a lot of consulting work. It's a larger gamut. And there are more people looking to get a slice of that business."

For former government employees, the opportunity to be a lobbyist has become so lucrative few can pass it up. John Hall, the former chairman of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, now lobbies for oil giant Mobil and trash giant Waste Management. Former railroad commissioner and legislator Lena Guerrero now lobbies for Longhorn Partners Pipeline and El Paso Electric.

Photo of lobbyist.
photograph by John Anderson

House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, has never been a fan of lobbyists. And in his own office, he has imposed the strictest revolving door policy in state government. Laney's senior-level employees must agree that they will not lobby at any level immediately following their stint in the Speaker's office, a prohibition which extends for one full session after leaving the Speaker's office. This policy gets high marks from one prominent lobbyist, who calls Laney's policy "a good one. ... It addresses the immediate influence if there is any." On Monday, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry followed Laney's lead by announcing a similar plan which prohibits former employees from lobbying for a full session of the Legislature. But Perry's plan only prohibits lobbying members of the lieutenant governor's staff. In a press release, Perry said his new policy "helps preserve the public trust by putting the brakes on the revolving door." (The governor's office has the same policy as Perry's.)

Although Laney wants to slow the revolving door, he also says he believes that legislators are seldom swayed by lobbyists. House and Senate members are "strong enough individuals and are intelligent enough to make their own decisions on how they vote," Laney says. Still, he admits the revolving door issue is problematic. "If there's a perception of a problem, there's probably a little bit of problem," he says. "And I'm sure we will try to address some of the perception problems." However, Laney offered no specifics.

The Legislature has shown extreme reluctance to limit legislators' ability to lobby. In each of the past two sessions, Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, has introduced a bill designed to slow the revolving door. His proposals have never gotten out of committee, though, and this session, Krusee may not even bother trying to slow the revolving door. "I've had trouble passing it in the past. And the Legislature hasn't changed a whole lot since then," says Krusee. But that hasn't lessened the legislator's belief that something is wrong with the system. "I think some people in the public wonder about motives of politicians when they see them playing both sides. I think it's a public confidence problem," he said.

Although the TPJ report focused attention on the lobby, the group did not help itself when it came to proposing a solution. Their recommendation -- that legislators and state agency officials be subject to a lifetime ban on lobbying -- is almost laughable. Such a prohibition (which was endorsed in an editorial by the local daily) is far too punitive and stands absolutely no chance of becoming law. Remember, Krusee couldn't even get his anti-revolving door proposal out of committee. "It's draconian and it would be patently unconstitutional, and I don't think it would stand much chance of passage," says Kent Caperton, a former member of the Texas Senate who now has a spate of lobby clients including Southwestern Bell Telephone and the Associated Electric Companies of Texas. Caperton, a member of the "$200,000 club" and perhaps the single highest-paid member of the lobby this session (see list, p.28), offers no apologies. "I was a citizen legislator. That doesn't mean that because I was a member that I forfeited what I think are opportunities to advocate the interests of clients of my choice," he says.

Caperton admits that the number of legislators who have joined the lobby may be troubling for some people. But he also points out that it's not just legislators who are traveling through the revolving door. In recent weeks, two high-profile state employees have quit their jobs to take lucrative positions in the private sector. Geoff Connor, former general counsel for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, recently quit the agency to take a job at the mega-law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. The firm has numerous clients that will benefit from Connor's inside knowledge of the workings at TNRCC. And Rick Jacobi, longtime general manager of the Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, quit his post last Friday to take a job at Envirocare, a waste disposal company that hopes to get a state contract allowing it to bury radioactive waste at a site it owns in Andrews County.

Which brings us back to the busts outside the cafeteria. Lewis and Clayton are both lobbying for Envirocare. Lewis is being paid less than $10,000; Clayton between $50,000-$100,000. Clayton points out that Envirocare's foe in the fight for the radioactive waste contract, Waste Control Specialists, is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. According to a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, Waste Control has hired 20 lobbyists, at a cost of up to $1 million, to work for the company this year. Of those lobbyists, a half-dozen are former legislators. They include former state senators Bill Haley, Carl Parker, and Bill Sims, and former House members Berlanga, Hilary Doran, and Jim Rudd. Waste Control has also hired Austin pundit/public relations guru Bill Miller, and Tony Proffitt, who was former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock's press secretary. To top it all off, Clayton points out that Simmons gave a $100,000 contribution to Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. That contribution, says Clayton, coupled with all those lobbyists, could influence the decision about which company gets the lucrative contract to bury the state's radioactive waste. "I just want to make sure there's a level playing field for my clients," said the former speaker.

A level playing field. What a great idea. If only there were a bronze monument to the level playing field inside the Capitol. After all, the lobbyists already have theirs.

The Texans for Public Justice report is available on the Web at http://www.tpj.org. The lobby lists are available at http://www.ethics.state.tx.us

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