Bell County offers much perspective in taxpayer-funded lobbying debate (TX)

Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown and other Texas local government officials squared off against taxpayer advocates Monday in a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing on SB 1862, a bill that seeks to stop local governments’ practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying.

Perspectives differed sharply. The nature of testimony was telling as well. Local government officials decried the bill as one that would make their jobs more difficult, tracking all those bills would be hard.

Taxpayer advocates, on the other hand, discussed the aggression with which local governments and their agents use tax dollars to influence and promote legislation including measures too often in opposition to taxpayer interests

Putting an end to taxpayer-funded lobbying

Calling it needed reform to the current system of intergovernmental lobbying, state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, introduced the bill which 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 (TAC), Texas Municipal League (TML), Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA). Often billed as “support service” resources, these groups’ well-funded lobbying arms are formidable.

From Watchdog.org:

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.

Per 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. The 1,741 lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission equate to 42 percent of the total.

With the number not including 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.

Positions, she noted, “often in direct opposition to the will of many of their constituents.”

“Simply put, the government should not be able to lobby government for more government on the taxpayer’s dime. Many taxpayers agree.”

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?”

Per Burton, SB 1862 places 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.

Who could be against equal legislative access for all Texans, transparency and greater accountability? Monday’s list opposing the bill includes Brown and other local government officials as well as the officials’ association counterparts.

The opposition

Brown, a 20-year office veteran, shared his strong opposition for “entirely justifiable” reasons.

“Every session of the Legislature brings an increased scope and complexity in range of topics we have to deal with,” Brown said. “Of the almost 6,500 bills that have been filed in this session alone, rough count or probably close to 2,000 potentially affect counties.”

“I appreciate the fact that the author invites local officials to be the advocates for those bills, but in practical terms, there’s absolutely no way that I or my colleagues have the time to read through and analyze and provide meaningful on feedback 2,000 bills. It simply cannot be done.”

Brown testified also how the complexity of issues requires a level of expertise that the average elected official doesn’t have.

“Those people (lobbyists) are assets for the Legislature and not just for those who hire them,” he said. “They work with legislative staffs day in, day out, to try and achieve the noble purpose of crafting good legislation.

Echoing Brown’s concerns, Sheriffs’ Association of Texas President A.J. Louderback said, “The bill would limit the voice of county government.”

“Local government is limited to time, travel, and information on a regular basis,” he said. “It would limit our ability to connect, collaborate and communicate during the session.

Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset testified similarly calling the bill “bad for us.” Citing difficulties in getting away from work when in session, he said liaisons are needed to inform them when they need to come up and testify.

“It will make it very difficult if we can’t have that liaison and the information fed to us for days like this,” he said.

Representing the Arlington ISD School Board and TASB, Board President Bowie Hogg expressed concern regarding the 1,000-plus bills each session brings and the need for legislative consultants to assist in their tracking.

“A fundamental responsibility of democracy is participation in government,” Hogg stated. “Provisions of SB 1862 directly contradict that responsibility by eliminating opportunities for school boards and school districts to communicate with their legislators through consultants and non-profit associations on matters that directly impact the students and taxpayers they represent.”

The taxpayer advocates

Whereas government officials focused on hardships they contend the bill would cause their entities, bill supporters discussed how current taxpayer-funded lobbying practices impact taxpayer interests and the legislative process.

Referencing AFP’s long involvement with this issue, Peggy Venable, Americans for Prosperity – Texas Policy Director, noted her written testimony describes a nationwide movement underway to defund the “growth industry” taxpayer-funded lobbying efforts have become.

“We will never improve education in Texas as long as the bureaucrats have someone lobbying for them and the people don’t have anyone lobbying for them,” Dave Nalle, representing both the Texas Liberty Foundation and the Republican Liberty Caucus, said specifically addressing the issue of education bureaucracy lobbyists.

“Their interests aren’t the interests of the students, the parents, or the taxpayers. Their interest is in perpetuating a growing bureaucracy and school expenses and keeping tax dollars coming in to keep that going.”

“Because of multiple lobbyists paid with public funds, Harris County still has to pay a property tax to support a county school system, a whole bureaucracy that hasn’t had a student zone to it since we moved to independent school districts over 50 years ago,” Colleen Vera, a retired Texas teacher, said. “This bill will not only stop the large quarter-million dollar contracts to lobbyists who file with the [Texas Ethics Commission), but also those paid in the $100,000 range under the disguise of consultants.”

“It will also stop bureaucrats paying lobbyists less than $50,000 to prevent the contracts from having to be approved by the school trustees at a public meeting,” Vera added.

“Thomas Jefferson said ‘to compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical,’” Alan Vera reminded echoing a quote used earlier by Burton while adding his support for the bill.

“That’s exactly what happens when local taxing authorities use my money to fight me and my fellow taxpayers when we try to correct waste and abuse by the same taxing authorities,” Vera said.

“When taxing authorities, the subject of our actions, use our own money against us hiring the lobbyists who happen to be former colleagues of the members of the legislature, we have no chance to achieve the reforms we seek peacefully,” he continued. “Using our public funds for lobbyists to work against us is sinful and tyrannical.”

“Shame on us for letting it get started, but shame on you if you let it continue.”

Jess Fields, Texas Public Policy Foundation senior policy analyst, testified how the bill prohibits use of taxpayer money for specific kinds of purposes of communication considered lobbying.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying, he said, basically shifts to a third party a responsibility that is every local officials’ responsibility – that of going out and expressing their opinion about what’s going on in the Legislature.

Under the bill, Fields noted how an organization representing local officials would not be prohibited from issuing bill alerts or information, nor would local officials be prohibited from individually creating an organization with their own money.

Following testimony, it was noted seven self-represented individuals additionally expressed support for the bill while 15 representatives of various local governments and associations voiced opposition

Some history to fill out the picture

The 2013 legislative session provides a great example not just of how taxpayer-funded lobbyists work, but also of the interests they serve. During the 83rd Texas Legislature, SB 14 and HB 14 addressed transparency with regard to government spending and debt.

Key points within the bills included requiring taxing entities to post financial information online – revenues and expenditures along with detailed long-term debt obligations.

In response to a growing use of certificates of obligation (CO), debt issuance for which voter approval is not required, the bill provided for the release of more debt information prior to issuing COs.  It also stopped entities from issuing COs for projects failing to get voter approval through a bond election.

The bills required taxing entities seeking voter approval for new debt to provide detailed information online and on the election ballot. The information would have included the principle amount of all outstanding debt obligations (total and per person), the combined principal and interest required to pay all outstanding debt obligations in full (total and per person), the principal of the bonds to be authorized (total and per person), the estimated combined principal and interest required to pay the bonds to be authorized (total and per person) and the maturity date of the bonds to be authorized.

It’s important to understand that interest generally adds about 40 percent to the principal obligation. This difference is significant. Governments know the real numbers – shouldn’t constituents paying the tab be afforded the same?

Taxpayer-focused officials would have embraced these means by which to help their constituents be better informed as to their governments’ actions and taxpayers’ long-term liabilities. Instead, local officials, taxpayer-funded lobbyists and taxpayer-funded associations coalesced to defeat the legislation. They rallied to thwart requirements for basic, honest disclosure, for information that should be the barest of minimums taxpayers deserve.

Neither individual taxpayers nor self-funded grassroots organizations could compete with the public dollars local governments can contribute to such battles.

Bell County offers examples of disclosure avoidance…

Brown’s own county of Bell provides a great backdrop illustrating how taxpayer-funded lobbying harms taxpayers and their relationships with local governments.

Bell County recently announced plans to issue up to $35 million in certificates of obligation. Designated for upgrading and expanding the Bell County Expo Center, the funds with interest likely represent a less, if at all, publicly-used figure of closer to $50 million in new taxpayer liability.

As local government debt continues record growth, COs and their lack of voter approval remain controversial. Bond elections in Bell County, however, can also be controversial as Brown, County Judge Jon Burrows and other commissioners remember from roughly a decade ago when voters rejected a new prison that was ultimately built, but without public approval.

With that, avoidance of entering the local government bond election rotation likely remains desirable as also does downplaying the county’s current – pre-CO – debt of $143.3 million ($113.8 million principal/$29.5 million interest).

The city of Temple is currently seeking voter approval of a $27.6 million bond package for parks improvements. Had SB 14/HB 14 passed, the city would now be required to provide both online and on the ballot details related to current outstanding debt (principal and interest) and the new debt being sought.

Voters would then discover Temple’s current $311.4 million debt level ($225.3 million principal/$86.1 million interest) as well as that the $27.6 million on the ballot becomes closer to $38.6 million with interest added.

And as the Temple Independent School District considers a $135 million bond package, passage of the legislation killed by taxpayer-funded lobbying groups would have required disclosure not seen with the 2011 package. If good faith transparency had been part of that equation, TISD taxpayers would be aware that upon issuance of the advertised $54.9 million in debt, $30.1 million interest was added functionally altering the amount approved to $85 million.

With that, recognize the $135 million is (with interest) more like $189 million so that any comparable upcoming election will more than double the district’s current $122.2 million bond debt ($86 million principal/$36.2 million interest).

The Texas Bond Review Board lists nearly $620 million (as of Aug. 31, 2014) of current debt level for local governments under which city of Temple voters likely live. With the debt additions desired, the next year could bring many Bell County residents living under local government debt of nearly $1 billion.

…and accountability avoidance

In discussing SB 1862, supporters made points about the bill bringing increased accountability of local elected officials for the positions they advocate. That would seem a given, but in practical terms as Brown liked to note, taking responsibility for taxpayer-adverse policies is a role most local officials would like to avoid.

TAC, TML, TASB and TASA in concert with other taxpayer-funded lobbyists were key in defeating SB 14/HB 14. Despite belonging to TAC, Burrows has no accountability for the measure, but enjoys issuing this new CO with minimal attention instead of what SB 14/HB 14 might have required.

Similarly, Temple and other city’s support of TML keeps Mayor Danny Dunn from having to suffer through current city debt levels being printed on bond election ballots. It dissuades discussions about the city’s full debt picture or even the full liability Saturday’s victory will bring.

TML provides the face for public debate on such issues, but local officials reap the benefit. After all, what elected official – especially one with political aspirations –wants to be on public record before a legislative hearing arguing constituents shouldn’t have easy access to their government’s most basic financial information?

And clearly TISD Superintendent Robin Battershell would likely prefer not having to explain how a $55 million bond package grew overnight to $85 million and that wasn’t enough. With this new election, it’s time to double down.

Taxpayers stuck with tab

Government wants the ability to lobbying government for more government. It will keep their workload lighter and they’ll get more of what they want. But should taxpayers be paying for that?

That sums up the case of why local governments strongly oppose Konni Burton’s taxpayer-funded lobbying bill that engaged taxpayers enthusiastically support. Too many governments are looking out for the interests of government – and at taxpayer expense.

The general public, meanwhile, is left with a voice often being drowned out by public entities using public money to pursue actions in direct conflict with the public’s interests.

SB 1862 is currently pending in committee.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist. As a contributor at Watchdog Wire Arena, Raging Elephants Radio and Examiner Austin, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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