AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens has never been shy about buttonholing elected officials, but it's seldom been easier since Texas' new lieutenant governor set up regular conference calls for select business leaders and donors to advise him on issues before the Legislature.
In Texas, where the wall between big money and government is like the low cattle fencing that pens the state's ranchland, new Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's new invitation-only calls have provided an especially direct connection between the state's business elite and the Legislature's agenda.
"Why wouldn't I want to learn from and communicate with the job creators? Why would we want to pass legislation that might impact our economy in a negative way?" said Patrick, who schedules bills for action, explaining the calls.
Though many politicians have kitchen cabinets of advisers or issue task forces, Patrick's private call-ins are considered unusual.
"It's the first of this type of thing we've heard about," said Edwin Bender executive director of the National Institute on Money In State Politics, which is based in Montana.
Patrick dismissed the idea that undue influence could be applied on bills. "I'm smart enough to filter that out," he told The Associated Press.
A former conservative talk show host and state legislator from Houston who was elected last November, Patrick picked 56 prominent Texans at the outset of the session to give their thoughts on what the Legislature should be doing.
No notes or memos from the sessions, which are held every couple weeks, are subject to Texas' open record laws. Even some of Patrick's other political advisers and conservative colleagues say they don't know what's being said.
"I've had people say, 'Well, don't you think that's a little untoward, these private meetings?' said JoAnn Fleming, a leader of tea party groups in Texas, which supported Patrick's campaign. "I said look, these guys have meetings with private citizens all the time. I don't think some dastardly, untoward thing is happening."
Unlike his counterparts in other states, the Texas lieutenant governor holds considerable power: Patrick sets the legislative agenda in the Senate and decides which bills advance and which don't.
Those invited to the conference calls include Tilman Fertitta, a Houston restaurant magnate whose chains include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., energy pipeline builder Kelcy Warren and railroad executive Bob Albritton. About 70 percent donated to Patrick's campaigns for Senate and lieutenant governor, amounting to about $2 million in contributions, and many also gave to other top Republicans, such as Gov. Greg Abbott.
Panel members and Patrick say they mostly discuss big-picture issues, like transportation or energy. The invitees include those with backgrounds in various areas. Patrick said he mostly sits back and listens. But the sessions are having an effect.
A bill giving state and local governments financial incentives to switch their fleets to natural gas — an idea pitched by Pickens — has passed Patrick's Senate. Forty-nine members of Patrick's conference call group also signed a letter supporting more highway funding, which Patrick said sends lawmakers a powerful message before voting.
Patrick said that if he has any regret, it's that the calls didn't start sooner so they could have shaped more bills for this session.
"Dan Patrick is like, 'I'm putting my money where my mouth is," in listening to the invitees, said Roy Bailey, a prolific national GOP fundraiser in Dallas.
Democrats dismiss the calls as mostly a reward to donors and Patrick's way of broadening his campaign team.
"This is just donor maintenance," said Matt Angle, a top Democratic strategist in Texas who advised Wendy Davis during her failed run for governor last year. "He's not going to do anything legislatively that he wouldn't do anyway."
Bender said political action committees and officials are already communicating their political strategies.
"This is taking it to that policy side," he said.
But to Pickens and others on the panels, real work is getting done.
"I'm not trying to get anything from the state. We like to help out," said Pickens, who originally supported one of Patrick's primary opponents last year.
Houston businessman Ned Holmes, who gave more than $100,000 to Texas candidates in 2014, said they're not calling the shots.
"Our perspective is valuable — I hope it's valuable to the lieutenant governor — because we draw from a pretty broad knowledge base," said Holmes. "But having said that, we don't determine policy."
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