Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

Statehouse revolvers

Study finds more than 1,300 ex-legislators among 2005 state lobbying ranks

By

 Updated:

Over a three-year period ending in 2005, nearly 1,600 former lawmakers across the country were registered at some point to lobby state legislatures for special interests, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. More than 1,300 ex-lawmakers were registered to lobby in 2005 alone.

The study findings show that the revolving door between public and private service turns just as easily in the state arena as it does in Washington D.C. on the federal level. And when the former state legislators moved into their new roles, Center research found, they often emerged as some of the most powerful, well-connected statehouse lobbyists.

"They sell that they have unique access because they're a former legislator," said Blair Horner, the legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a state government watchdog organization.

As lobbyists, they work to further the interests of companies and organizations as diverse as the 162,000 state bills introduced nationwide last year. Their clients run the gamut of special interests: from private companies to public schools, from trade associations to labor unions, from political watchdogs to political parties.Ex-legislators often start boutique shops or join established blue-chip firms as a name partner. Among those registered to lobby in 2005, more than 200 signed up under a lobbying firm or consulting group that included their name in the title. Others were hired by companies on a contract basis or became staff members of companies and associations looking for a voice at the statehouse.

Legislators become lobbyists because "they have skills and expertise to do so," said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "They are effective. They become experts on certain issues."

In many states, the job of a legislator draws low pay despite long hours. For their elected officials, the inclination to enter the influence business can be particularly strong.

"I can stay in the state Senate, which I've been in for 16 years, attend meetings at night and weekends, and stand for re-election at $25,000 a year with per diem, or I can go out in the hall and not have to go to meetings at night, only follow the legislation that my clients care about, and make $200,000 a year," said former Indiana Democratic legislator Louis Mahern, who is currently a registered lobbyist. "You can only resist that for so long. I have to start thinking about my financial future or my children's education."

The Center's analysis included a six-month-long, state-by-state survey that compared the names of former legislators with the names of lobbyists registered in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The initial identification matches were confirmed and supplemented through hundreds of telephone calls to officials and political observers in all 50 states to ensure that the former legislators and the current lobbyists were the same people. The Center also attempted to contact each individual to obtain direct confirmation.

Center research found that former government staffers across the country have gone on to become well-connected lobbyists. Although much rarer, researchers also discovered that some lobbyists have abandoned their roles as advocates to the legislature to become elected members.The lists of ex-legislators registered to lobby accompanying this report focus on those registered in 2005. Center researchers attempted to identify as many legislators-turned-lobbyists as were registered in each state despite the wide variation among state laws defining what practices require registration. Many lobbyists revolved from the legislature in recent years; others had not held office for decades.

Everything's bigger in Texas

The Center's study of 2005 records found the most legislators-turned-lobbyists in Texas: 70 ex-lawmakers were registered that year. Florida was second with 60 "revolvers," and Minnesota and Illinois ranked next with 50 each. Following in the list were Missouri (46), Massachusetts and Michigan (43 each) and Georgia (41).

Proportionately, New Hampshire, Utah and Oklahoma had the highest percentages of revolvers registered in 2005, with nearly 10 percent of their lobbying corps having served in the legislature. Texas and Florida had roughly 4 percent and 3 percent that year, and Virginia had one of the lowest percentages — fewer than 1 percent — of ex-legislators on their list of registered lobbyists.

States with the fewest number of ex-lawmakers acting as lobbyists tend to have small populations, such as Alaska (10), Hawaii and Wyoming (12 each). But Virginia, which according to July 2005 U.S. census estimates was the 12th-most-populous state, ranked last in the study with only six former legislators registered to lobby in 2005.

"No term limits and entrenched incumbency means little turnover in the legislature," explained Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, "and legislators who stay so long that when they get out, they are too old to start a new career as a lobbyist."

Since most state legislatures are part-time, lawmakers-turned-lobbyists across the country spend much of their time focusing their efforts and expertise on activities away from the statehouse. In Texas, for example, lobbyists work the statehouse halls only during a five-month session every odd-numbered year. But they still keep busy in the off-session.

"Even-numbered years are election years. ... [Lobbyists] are going to the fundraisers and helping the candidates in their campaigns," explained Andrew Wheat, research director of the state watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. "They are probably lobbying other state agencies [and officials], like the governor. When it is an odd year and the Legislature is in session, the lobbying peaks."

In some cases, former part-time legislators also choose to limit their lobbying to part-time, working the capitol only during the session and spending the rest of the year doing their other line of work.

"I just work during the session and that's it," said Bob Gilbert, a former Republican member of the House in Montana. "I play carpenter the rest of the time."

Fellow Montanan Larry Fasbender, a former Democratic state representative and senator, does the same. "I'm actually a farmer, and it worked out quite well to lobby in the winter months," Fasbender said.

The pay-off for turning to lobbying is typically much higher than a legislator's earned income. In 2005, past legislators lobbying in Texas, for example, earned an average range of $256,000 to $494,000 in client fees. By comparison, a Texas legislator's 2005 salary was $7,200, plus a per diem for living expenses of $128.

While Center interviews confirmed that lobbyists make much more than lawmakers, determining how much more, in many cases, is difficult. Legislators' salary amounts are made public, while many lobbyists' are not: in 2005, 21 states did not require lobbyists' fees or salaries to be disclosed. That number dropped to 19 in 2006, after Florida and Tennessee changed their ethics laws.

Players in and out of the statehouse

Among the most powerful of former legislators-turned-lobbyists are those who held leadership roles. The lobbyists' ranks in 2005 include at least 98 ex-legislators who were House speakers, Senate presidents or presidents pro-tempore.

John Thrasher, a Republican former legislator, is one of the more recent Florida speakers to enter the business. Thrasher, who left office in 2000, registered in January 2001 to lobby the state's executive branch. Then he registered again in 2002 to lobby the Florida Legislature after the two-year "cooling-off" period required by state law had ended. He joined Southern Strategy Group — one of the biggest lobbying firms in the South — and now lobbies for numerous private clients.

Thrasher was aware his former role in government would help his new lobbying practice. "You don't get to be speaker unless some people perceived you to be of some ability. I think I came out with a pretty good feeling of how I could help people with the process," he told the Center.

Adding to their status as potential advocates, some former statehouse leaders roam the halls of buildings where statues or monuments celebrating their public service are located. For example, a bronze bust of Texan Gib Lewis, a powerful Democratic House speaker in the 1980s and 1990s, sits in the Austin capitol where Lewis now lobbies legislators on behalf of his clients.

Another powerful lawmaker-turned-lobbyist is Stephen Wojdak, who started his firm in 1977 after leaving Pennsylvania's statehouse. As a Democratic legislator, he served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, "a post that allowed him to play a significant role in the shaping of the commonwealth's annual budget," according to the biography on the his firm's Web site. Since then, Wojdak has lobbied for dozens of clients, including health care providers such as the North Philadelphia Health System and the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System in the Keystone State.

But while many perceive former legislators as having an advantage when working to sway lawmakers' opinion, not all agree.

"I didn't really feel like I was treated any differently than the other lobbyists," said Diana Glomb-Rogan, a past Democratic state senator from Nevada. Glomb-Rogan said she found her friendships in the statehouse gained her little advantage as an advocate.

"I was teased by some of my colleagues a little bit when I went to testify, but all in appropriate, good fun," she said. "They certainly didn't cut me any slack when it came to tough questions, so I wasn't spared."

According to Cap Ferry, a former Utah Senate president now a lobbyist himself, many lawmakers are not cut out for the switch.

"Most legislators don't make good lobbyists," said the onetime Republican lawmaker. "They forget they're not in charge and they don't like doing grunt work. … Most legislators don't like being told what to do."

Another type of government service

Another lucrative lobbying avenue for lawmakers is advocating for government entities, including towns, counties, state universities, and even massive state agencies. Many former legislators take jobs as legislative liaisons, public affairs consultants or government relations experts.

A 2004 Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial pinpointed several legislators who returned as lobbyists, some working for other branches of state government. In 2005, 13 of Georgia's past legislators were listed as registered lobbyists working for state government agencies, six of them for the Department of Transportation.

Other than legislative liaison Jimmy Benefield, a former Democratic House Transportation Committee chairman, all of the ex-legislators registered on behalf of the Department of Transportation were or had been members of the Georgia State Transportation Board, which oversees the department's budget. Board members are elected by a majority of the General Assembly's caucus in each of the state's 13 Congressional districts.

Benefield told the Center that board members are not lobbyists, though they are registered. "They are signed up as lobbyists because if they do go over and talk to the legislature, we want to make sure they are not doing anything illegal," he said.

Not all states agree that these kinds of government positions truly qualify as lobbying jobs. The Center found that only 18 states require government-employed advocates to register as lobbyists.

Many ex-legislators told the Center that they registered to lobby out of an abundance of caution.

Amanda Merrill, a past Democratic legislator in New Hampshire, lobbied for New Hampshire Citizens Alliance in 2004. "I basically registered so that if I did do something that could be construed as lobbying, that would be covered," she said.

Bud Gardner, a former Democratic representative in Florida, offered the Center a similar explanation as to why he registered as a lobbyist in 2003 for the trade group that employed him.

"Actually, I never lobbied for the Florida Association of Broadcasters," Gardner wrote to the Center in an e-mail. "I am a tax consultant for FAB and because I was listed as a consultant in 2003, I thought I needed to register as a lobbyist. Since I do no lobbying for FAB, we [later] determined that there was no need to register as a lobbyist."

Slowing the revolving door

States differ greatly in how they regulate lobbying — from the definition of "lobbying" and "lobbyist" to the limits on lobbyists' gifts or campaign contributions to lawmakers.

By 2007, at least 19 states will require a one-year cooling-off period before their legislators can become lobbyists. Six states already have a two-year wait and North Carolina will begin enforcing a six-month ban in 2007.

Florida is one of the states with a two-year cooling-off period for former legislators anxious to begin lobbying careers. But the ban doesn't appear to have slowed the revolving door there, given its rank as second to Texas for the number of former lawmakers in its lobbying corps.

In interviews, many former lawmakers said such temporary bans on legislators becoming lobbyists were important, if only to improve the public's perception of both professions."They will take a job with a lobbying firm as a consultant or something like that for the two years they cannot lobby. I would say, kind of anecdotally, that is the way things work," said Ben Wilcox, executive director for Common Cause Florida, another government watchdog group. "I don't think [the ban] is really slowing or keeping legislators from going into lobbying when they leave the Legislature."

"I self-imposed a year because I thought it would be good to put that space between my political service and private practice," said Robert Quinn, once Massachusetts' attorney general and Democratic House speaker in the late 1960s, who now lobbies for more than a dozen clients. "The revolving door situation is an unattractive thing." (The Bay State instituted a one-year waiting period in 1978, soon after Quinn's self-imposed wait ended.)

The Center's analysis showed that six of the 10 states with the highest number of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists in 2005 had no cooling-off period that year.

Some lawmakers believe that term limits imposed upon elected officials have resulted in increasing numbers of ex-legislators turning to lobbying, and in lobbyists gaining more influence in state capitols.

"In term limit states, lobbyists and bureaucrats are running the government," said Charles Broomfield, once a Democratic state lawmaker in Missouri who has been a registered lobbyist. "Term limits have led to a legislative body with no institutional knowledge."

Nine of the 15 states with the largest numbers of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists in 2005 were states with term limits.

As the revolving door between legislator and lobbyist continues to turn at the nation's statehouses, the concerns over the influence former lawmakers wield all come back to the same point: the common good.

"Whether you are a legislator or a lobbyist," said Kerns of the Center for Ethics in Government, "the question is how the public can best be served."

Director of State Projects Leah Rush, Database Editor Helena Bengtsson, researchers Neil Gordon, Joaquin Sapien, Susan Schaab, Elspeth Reeve as well as research interns Nadine Elsibai, Sun-Jung Kim, Jeffrey Nelson, and Jamie Schuman contributed to this report. Additional research assistance was provided by interns Lindsey Holden, Sara Hunt, David Jimenez, Sarah Laskow, Julia Miller-Lemon, Sophie Rutenbar and Joshua Starr.