Taxpayer-funded lobbying under fire in Texas

Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a practice that both harms taxpayers and demeans the Texas legislative process.

From Watchdog Arena:

The tone was low-key, but stakes were high on Monday as Texas local governments squared off against taxpayer advocates in a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing on taxpayer-funded lobbying.

SB 1862 seeks to not only stop local government entities’ practice of hiring lobbyists, but to also make violations a Class B misdemeanor. Bill sponsor state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, calls it a needed reform to the current system of intergovernmental lobbying.

The bill largely addresses third parties being paid by public tax revenue to influence legislation or to generate good will in order to influence future legislation.

While public entities routinely hire individual lobbyists or lobbying firms, additional influence emanates from local governments’ financial support of organizations like Texas Association of Counties, Texas Municipal League, Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators. Often billed as “support service” resources, these groups’ well-funded lobbying arms are formidable.

In laying out the bill, Burton explained how local governments who impose a tax would be prohibited from paying third party lobbyists to advocate for or against legislation. And while the bill prohibits use of public funds for paying dues to associations that employ or contract with lobbyists, it does not stop elected officials or local government employees from any activity including legislative testifying, so long as that activity doesn’t constitute grounds for registration as a lobbyist under current rules.

The bill doesn’t preclude local government associations from informing their members about proposed legislation, communicating with members on merits of bills, or directly communicating with legislators as a resource witness.

According to Burton, the Texas Senate Research Center found earlier this year that 732 individual lobbyists were registered to do business on behalf of city or county governments. That equates to 42 percent of the total 1,741 lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Noting the number doesn’t include school, water, or other local districts (the number has been requested, but not received), Burton said that conservatively suggests “over 50 percent of registered lobbyists in Texas represent some form of local government.”

“More often than not, local government lobbyists appear on behalf of their clients to argue for expanded authority, the establishment of new governmental entities, against restrictions of their authority and against limitations of their power to tax,” Burton said.

“Interests local governments have in legislation should be communicated by and through their officials,” Burton maintained. “To allow local governments to continue hiring outside lobbyists to influence legislation works against the interests of ordinary Texans.”

“Constituents have seen their tax money used to aggressively advocate against them.” Burton asked, “Why should ordinary Texans be forced to compete with Austin lobbyists on local issues?”

Burton concluded SB 1862 would provide the public greater confidence and transparency by removing a local government’s ability to participate in lobbying.

It would place local governments on same footing as state agencies by providing a more equitable system under which the voices of ordinary Texans will not have to compete against professional lobbyists. Additionally, she said, it provides for greater accountability of local elected officials for the positions they advocate.

Read more at Watchdog Arena.

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