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Lobbyists mine Obama stimulus bill for clients

President Barack Obama powered his election campaign on a vow to get lobbyists out of the driver's seat, but it turns out some of the professionals sunniest about their prospects in these grim times are those in the governmental relations business.

Just ask Arthur "Jerry" Kremer, a longtime Long Island lobbyist who this week said he has brought on three new executives to form Empire Government Strategies, with offices in Long Island, Manhattan, Albany and Washington.

"After the election I sensed that with the new administration in Washington, there is a need for a dramatic expansion of companies that provide these kinds of services," said Kremer, a former chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee who plans to help Canon USA, Brookhaven, and other governments and nonprofits lobby state agencies for stimulus-bill aid. "In the last three weeks, I've probably had a dozen inquiries."

After the frenzied weeks of effort to shape the $787 billion stimulus package passed last month, lobbyists' work has shifted to combing through more than 1,000 pages of fine print in the measure to identify opportunities for business and government - and then help clients tap those opportunities in state and federal agencies.

There are billions in tax breaks, grants and contracts for everything from police and broadband to health information technology and energy efficiency. And that's before you even start with the hundreds of billions being poured into other initiatives on health care reform, mortgage relief and the bank bailout.

"They (the administration) are blasting out on 15 fronts at the same time. . . . The potential here is spectacular," said Richard Spees, the Washington office managing shareholder of Akerman Senterfitt, a law firm with 500 attorneys and consultants, which is doubling its D.C. staff over the next three weeks. "If you're an institution or a city that is involved in Washington, it'd be dereliction of duty not to have somebody helping you here. . . . I think it's going to be very good for our profession."

In Albany, the state's fiscal crisis had already brought out so many interest groups fighting tax increases and budget cuts on everything from soda pop to hospitals that hallways and elevators have been impossibly cramped. Now that $24.6 billion in aid is arriving, there's a whole new level of jockeying over which budget holes to fill.

Association for a Better Long Island lobbyist Desmond Ryan says of the bill: "It's starting to look like a Christmas tree."

All this has public watchdogs uncomfortable.

"When there's going to be such an influx of money to the state like this, it opens up a lot of concern that lobbyists might be able to wield even greater influence than they normally do," said Chris Keeley, associate director of Common Cause NY, which has joined with other good-government groups to urge more transparency and accountability.

Gov. David A. Paterson insists no one will get special treatment and that strict guidelines from the Obama administration, and input from elected officials and agencies will govern aid decisions.

"Lobbyists have not and will not influence this process," spokeswoman Erin Duggan said Saturday. " . . . The governor will not allow the process to be politicized."

But Kremer says his municipal clients fear they will be lost in the mix.

"They just feel they need somebody to speak in a louder voice for them," Kremer said.

So the state's recovery czar, Timothy Gilchrist, "will be seeing my face very soon," Kremer said.

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