With deadline looming, Texas House moves to hear bill banning taxpayer-funded lobbying

With seven days left in the regular Legislative Session, the Texas House is scheduled to debate Senate Bill 29, which would ban taxpayer-funded lobbying. It has until Tuesday to pass the bill, according to legislative rules.

Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Sen. Bob Hall, R–Edgewood, would prevent an agency, organization or government subdivision funded by tax dollars from hiring a lobbyist or engaging in lobbying activity.

“Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for lobbying that advocates against their interest,” Hall said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not have to pay for influencing legislators about a cause they don’t support. It’s unethical.”

Under current state law, political subdivisions are allowed to spend public funds to hire lobbyists for the purpose of supporting or opposing legislation being considered by the state Legislature.

Taxpayers and ratepayers of political subdivisions and special districts that hire lobbyists are forced to pay for lobby efforts of their jurisdiction, even if their efforts oppose the will of the taxpayers. For example, the Texas GOP points out, “Homeowners may prefer lower property taxes or even the complete replacement of property taxes, while a taxing jurisdiction may be employing lobbyists to protect or even raise property taxes.”

A coalition of advocacy groups supports the measure. They include the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), Americans for Tax Reform, the Republican Party of Texas, Grassroots America – We the People, Americans for Prosperity (AFP)– Texas, Convention of States, and the Kingwood TEA Party.

“Governments are using Texans’ tax dollars to push for more spending, higher property taxes, less accountability, and transparency, all the while making sure these high-priced lobbying firms get their cut,” the TPPF said.

In 2015, political subdivisions spent about $16 million on lobbyist compensation, according to a Texas Ethics Commission estimate. In 2017, local Texas governments spent up to $41 million of taxpayer funds to influence state legislation, according to the TPPF.

Chuck DeVore, a TPPF vice president, testified that the 2017 estimate was “in addition to money spent to analyze legislation, wage public relations campaigns, and build coalitions. This sum does not include funds spent on salary or travel for government employees whose full-time or part-time job is to lobby.”

Opponents say prohibiting taxpayer-funded lobbying violates the First Amendment right to free speech. However, DeVore argues this reasoning is faulty.

“Only people have rights,” he says. “Governments have powers; they don’t have rights.”

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America – We the People, and a member of the coalition, said that the existing law allows the following scenario: “inviting a robber into your home to steal you blind – except the homeowner doesn’t do the inviting. His local elected officials do.”

In a letter to constituents, Hall wrote, “Don’t be misled by false claims from those who want to protect the lobby. Eliminating taxpayer-funded lobbying will in no way end the ability of local government officials to influence the legislature.”

According to a recent survey of registered voters conducted by WPA Intelligence, 91 percent oppose using tax dollars to fund lobbyists; 80 percent strongly oppose the practice.

Many survey respondents “had no idea that their tax money was being used to pay for lobbying,” WPA found.

Among those who oppose the practice were 84 percent of Hispanic voters and 87 percent of African-American voters.

There is no need to have taxpayers fund lobbyists, Sam Sheetz, policy director at AFP Texas, said because “local governments already have lobbyists – their duly elected state senators and representatives from their areas.”

The Senate passed the bill last month, with Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, joining every Democrat opposing it.

When it passed, Hall pointed to dozens of lobbyists employed by the City of Austin and Austin ISD, and to the Texas Municipal League’s opposition to property tax reform legislation, as reasons why he filed the bill.

“I came here to represent the people of Texas. I was not elected by a city, county, or school district,” Hall said. If local officials were concerned about spending taxpayer dollars on lobbyists, he added that they were free to call him any time.

This article was first published on The Center Square.

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