Let's Go Lobby

Midwives to laws you might not like

With the state legislative session set to unfold in the new year, some of the best bullshitters in Texas, a.k.a. lobbyists, are honing their pitches on behalf of governments, industries and individual clients. There's a world of Lone Star State laws out there to make, alter or repeal for someone's benefit, and the wages for the work aren't half bad, either.

Take the example of veteran Houston lobbyist Jim Short, an ex-member of the city of Houston lobbying team and close associate of former mayor Bob Lanier. Short is now championing a faction of the vehicle-towing industry here, and he recently offered a modest proposal to prospective clients at a meeting at an Astrodome-area hotel. Members of a rival group of towers, Incident Management Services, acquired and circulated a copy of Short's pitch, which provides readers with a quick study in the art of lobbying.

Short begins with the question, "Can a small group of businesses band together for the purpose of lobbying to secure changes in state law which would have the effect of improving the business environment for their particular businesses?" As you might expect, he answers in the affirmative and goes on to specify his fee of $90,000.

"One's chances of success are dramatically increased through the use of a competent lobbyist," lectures Short. "It is extremely more difficult to pass legislation than it is to 'kill' legislation. I believe that you help yourselves and your businesses by seeking a program that both protects what you have now and seeks to improve on your current business environment."

Although Short's fee sounds like big money, another Houston lobbyist says Short has his work cut out to earn the bucks. "What he's trying to do is going to be hard to get on the radar up there in Austin unless you got a good relationship with the speaker [Pete Laney]. Ninety thousand dollars for Short ain't bad. Short and the speaker go back years. He's one of the good ol' boys."

The lobbyist advises his prospective clients to play both offense and defense in the upcoming session. "The goal of all lobbying efforts," declares Short, "is to 'keep what you have presently,' then try to gain the passage of additional things that you wish you had."

The wish list for Short's clients may be particularly alarming to absent-minded motorists. Among his goals are changing state laws on drivers that police catch without licenses or proof of insurance. They would have to surrender their vehicles, which would be towed and impounded in a storage lot. Likewise, suggests Short, the law could be amended so that autos involved in wrecks could not be driven from the accident scene if they could not pass a state inspection "due to broken headlights, taillights, failed brakes, leaking fluids, etc."

"You got to give him credit," says an Austin lobbyist of Short'spitch to the wrecker owners. "He's appealing to their bottom line."

Short's biggest priority for the session is preventing the city of Houston from contracting with a single towing group. Since a federal judge knocked out the old "E-Tag" system of awarding towing assignments two years ago, several companies banded together as Incident Management Services, headed by longtime towing-company owner Jeannette Rash. The group wants a city contract.

"A contract system would highly reward one contractor to the detriment off all other companies in the towing business," claims Short. "Knowing the character of IMS, I do not see how you could go through the legislative session 'naked.' Not having representation would seem to be inviting disaster."

Predictably, Rash doesn't see the situation in quite those terms. She criticizes Short's suggested changes in the law as bad publicity that makes tow-truck operators sound like predators trying to take advantage of hap-less motorists.

"That is not for the towing industry to decide," says Rash, who notes that the same legislation has been introduced three sessions in a row by people in the insurance industry. "That is something that has to be decided by people who do not have a monetary interest there, and we're not going to get involved in that."

Rash says she organized IMS to allow smaller, privately owned towing companies to compete with larger public companies coming into Houston to try to dominate the freshly deregulated market. She says she has no idea if the city will eventually go with a contract system. IMS has such a contract with the Texas Department of Transportation for emergency towing from large-scale accidents on area freeways.

"I don't know what's going to happen," says Rash. She notes that more than 50 tow trucks swarmed in seeking customers at some recent city accident scenes. Under deregulation, all are free to haggle for deals with motorists or participate in a drawing conducted by police to determine who gets the tow. "I just don't know how long that can continue," says Rash.

For $90,000, Jim Short promises to try his best to make sure the situation continues indefinitely.

Let the Insider tow your best news tips into print. Call him at 280-2483, fax him at 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

 
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