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Houston Chronicle: Critics of ex-lobbyists missing big picture

LIKE a prizefight, the punches and counterpunches keep flying in Austin.

Liberal interest groups and some in the media bemoan the addition of several high-profile former lobbyists to high-ranking positions in state government and make light of potential conflicts of interests.

The elected officials doing the hiring counter by touting the qualifications and experience of the chosen ones.

The trifecta that makes up the new governing leadership at the state Capitol -- Gov. Rick Perry, newly elected to his own four-year term, Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst and presumptive Speaker of the House Tom Craddick -- have all come under fire in recent weeks for involving lobbyists in their transition team or executive office staff.

Craddick was blasted for enlisting lobbyist Bill Messer, among others, to help guide his transition process from member of the House of Representatives to speaker of the entire 150-member, Republican-majority body, a formidable task. Dewhurst hired Bruce Gibson, most recently director of government relations for Reliant Energy in Houston, to lead his staff. And Perry brought two old and respected friends back to the governor's office -- lobbyists Mike Toomey, as chief of staff, and Cliff Johnson as senior adviser.

Critics, dazed by the flurry of blows Republicans scored on Election Day, scored a brief post-election knockdown on the issue. But they are missing the bigger picture.

Texans should recognize the value these individuals bring to the table. Not only are they former lobbyists, they are also former elected officials themselves, with vast experience and records of distinguished service.

And as 2003 unfolds, the need for experienced hands looms large indeed. Texas faces a state budget deficit the likes of which we haven't seen since the mid-1980s. Last week, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said the deficit could approach $10 billion.

Toomey, Johnson, Messer and Gibson all served in the Texas House of Representatives for multiple terms. Messer and Gibson are former committee chairmen. Toomey and Johnson both served former Gov. Bill Clements in capacities similar to the role they will play with Gov. Perry and helped balance the budget in 1989, a period almost as lean economically as we face today.

In particular, budget experience will be critical. Toomey and Johnson served on the House Appropriations Committee (with then-state Rep. Perry), the committee that writes the state budget. They will know how to separate the wheat from the chaff in the budget, where and how to make the tough cuts.

Gibson has seen the inside of the lieutenant governor's office before, having served as chief of staff for a Democratic lieutenant governor, the late Bob Bullock.

All know the process inside and out. The leadership trifecta knows there's no time for remedial training.

As lobbyists representing corporate clients, they also bring business experience at a time when private-sector approaches may help bridge the budget gap without raising taxes.

All have divested of any direct interest in their former lobby practices and promised a "Chinese wall" to alleviate any perceived conflicts with former clients. All are subject to the state's "revolving door" ethics statute that prevents each from lobbying their former employer for one year following their departure, if and when that comes. And all will forgo substantial private-sector income to serve the state.

And let's face it, lobby influence is not new. As the Chronicle recently reported, interest groups have been around for more than a century. Virtually every citizen in Texas has an interest group fighting issues they oppose or touting the benefits of issues near and dear to their cause. They need representation at the state Capitol. Lobbyists provide the representation.

There are good reasons why the lobby serves a critical role in the legislative process. For one, our Texas senators and representatives make $7,200 -- per year. It's clearly part-time work and reflective of our state's citizen-legislature style of government, as outlined in the 125-year-old Texas Constitution. Texans must like it this way, since we have on more than one occasion rejected constitutional amendments that would have increased their pay and instituted annual legislative sessions.

As it is, the workload is short in duration but fast-paced and intensive. For perspective, consider that the Texas Legislature meets for 140 days every two years. In 2001, 8,847 bills were filed, 4,630 were passed, and 1,809 were signed into law by the governor. Legislators can't possibly keep up with even the primary intent of that volume of legislation, much less the all-important "fine print." Further, in 2003 the Legislature will feature 40 new senators and representatives who will have had all of 60 days since the November election to prepare for the fast-paced session that will be ripe with intricate budget discussion and legislative nuance.

The lobby can serve an important role as the keepers of institutional knowledge, and provide continuity and issue expertise to keep the wheels of the legislative train on track. Not that there shouldn't be checks and balances, maybe even an occasional jab. The critics and the media will no doubt keep us apprised of any questionable antics.

In the end, Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick are wise to bring experience and knowledge to their leadership teams during such a critical time in Texas, and Texans will be well served for it. But get ready, the rumble isn't over.


Casselberry is managing director of Quorum Public Affairs, LLC, a corporate public affairs firm based in Austin. He served as an aide to two Texas governors.