Texas Senate Affairs committee holds hearing on taxpayer-funded lobbying

Each year, local governments in Texas spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on lobbyists whose job it is to persuade state lawmakers to allow for bigger government. It’s a practice some legislators say must end.

The Texas Senate Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the issue of taxpayer-funded lobbying at the state Capitol. The hearing was held behind plexiglass shields, only invited testimony was heard through videoconference, and citizens could not attend in person.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R–Mineola, chaired the hearing. State Sen. Bob Hall, R–Edgewood, filed legislation, SB 234, on the same day to end the practice after a companion bill, HB 749, was filed in the state House earlier this week by state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R–Wallisville.

Hall said at the meeting that taxpayer-funded lobbying has been used to work against taxpayers. Some examples on how taxpayer money has been used to work against their best interests, he said, “are election integrity, true cost transparency of bonds, single-item bonds, ban on state income tax, first responder’s retirement fund protection, and they even went so far as to oppose the funding and protection of our teacher’s retirement fund.

“It is time to stop diverting local money away from police, firefighters, teachers’ pay, and infrastructure improvements like roads to line the pockets of Austin lobbyists,” Hall added.

James Quintero, policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Government for the People Campaign, spoke at the hearing and presented examples of costs to citizens throughout the state.

In Houston, for example, the city plans to spend $1.3 million in fiscal 2021 on lobbying, he noted. In Austin, the city plans to spend roughly the same amount on lobbying, including $130,000 on office space only a few blocks from city hall.

He said in a statement, “Governments are forcing taxpayers to pay for lobbyists whose job it is to advocate for more government. This abusive practice costs Texans dearly, both financially and in terms of the quality of legislation passed or defeated every session.” He said the Legislature “must end taxpayer-funded lobbying for the sake of prosperity and posterity” and that the bills proposed “stop local governments from spending public money on well-heeled lobbyists and those that employ them.”

At a similar hearing held in March, the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Chuck Devore testified that, “In 2017, local Texas governments spent up to $41 million of taxpayer funds to influence state legislation.” This sum is a low-ball estimate because it “does not include funds spent on salary or travel for government employees whose full-time or part-time job is to lobby.”

Tom Forbes, president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, comprised of lobbyists, said if the Legislature were to ban the practice when it meets next year, taxpayer-funded lobbying would still continue, it just wouldn’t be as visible and would operate in the shadows.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R–Granbury, a member of the committee, said the legislature could reach a compromise by only applying the ban to urban counties. Taxpayer lobbying would then only occur in rural areas of the state.

But Sam Sheetz, policy director for Americans for Prosperity – Texas, argues, “Local governments already have lobbyists – the duly elected state senators and representatives from their areas. Spending taxpayer money on third-party lobbyists is not an appropriate role of local government or in the best interest of taxpayers.”

Statewide, nearly 95 percent of Republican primary voters voted in March for a proposition that called for banning taxpayer-funded lobbying altogether.

According to a survey of registered voters in May from WPA Intelligence, 91% oppose using tax dollars to fund lobbyists, with 80% saying they strongly oppose it.

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