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Leaving the Legislature, but Not Going Too Far

Soon after their replacements were sworn in last month, eight former House members registered as lobbyists with the Texas Ethics Commission.

(l to r) Jim Jackson, Rob Eissler, Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, Vicki Truitt, (second row) Aaron Peña, Chuck Hopson, Burt Solomons, Rick Hardcastle

Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

It is a familiar sight at the start of every legislative session in Austin.

The latest batch of former legislators, who have left their House or Senate seats either by their own choice or that of the voters, invariably includes some who quickly begin careers as lobbyists hoping to influence former colleagues on behalf of deep-pocketed clients.

A handful of lawmakers and critics have pushed for years to close the “revolving door," as the practice strikes them as unethical or unseemly. In a part-time citizen Legislature whose conflict-of-interest rules have been questioned, such a situation only adds to the calls for change.

“I think it’s very important that we send a clear signal to the citizens that if you’re a legislator, that it’s not a steppingstone to a half-a-million-dollar-a-year lobbying job,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

Last month, eight former House members, all Republicans, registered as lobbyists with the Texas Ethics Commission soon after their replacements were sworn in.

In many cases, former lawmakers are lobbying for companies on issues in which they gained expertise while in office. Rob Eissler of The Woodlands headed the House Public Education Committee last session; now his clients include the Harris County Department of Education. Vicki Truitt of Keller is lobbying for the Texas Retired Teachers Association and payday lender ACE Cash Express after previously leading the House committee that dealt with pensions and financial services.

Former Reps. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton of Lumberton, Rick Hardcastle of Vernon, Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, Jim Jackson of Carrollton, Aaron Peña of Edinburg and Burt Solomons of Carrollton are also now lobbyists in Austin.

Last month, Jackson joined the staff of Texas Legislative Associates, an Austin lobbying firm that brags on its website about the ability of its staff of “former legislators and agency executives” to provide clients “extraordinary access to key policy makers.”

“I’m not ever going to be a big-time lobbyist,” said Jackson, who did not seek re-election in 2012. “I just wanted to stay in the game, and I’m enjoying myself.”

Jackson took issue with the notion that his quick turn into lobbying could be viewed as inappropriate by fellow colleagues or former constituents.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “Experience always helps.”

In 2006, the Center for Public Integrity found more than 1,300 former lawmakers registered as lobbyists around the country. Texas had the most, with 70.

Thirty-five states require a “cooling off” period before legislators can begin lobbying their state government, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Both state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Patrick have filed bills this session similar to ones they have offered in the past, adding Texas to that list. Howard wants legislators to wait two years. Patrick thinks they should be barred from lobbying for the two regular legislative sessions after they leave office.

Howard noted that Texas already required some employees of regulatory agencies to take two years off before lobbying their former employers.

“It seems to me if we’re going to require that of our state employees, we should require it of state legislators,” she said.

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Politics State government Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature