One of the biggest frustrations of the 86th Legislature, from the perspective of some conservatives, was the failure to pass a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying.
The measure died in the House after sponsored legislation (SB 29) from Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) was voted down 58-85 following a series of floor maneuvers and amendments that changed the substance of the bill.
A Friday panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) annual conference, moderated by TPPF’s vice president Chuck DeVore, convened State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), State Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), and president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas (PAAT), Tom Forbes.
PAAT, DeVore jokingly stated, essentially act as “lobbyists for the lobbyists.”
Forbes, right off the bat touted transparency, stating, “You have to give people an idea of how much the government is spending and that’s good for government and their constituents.”
Forbes and PAAT were opposed to SB 29 and testified against it during its Senate committee hearing last year.
Forbes outlined his position that a ban on using taxpayer funding for lobbying contracts would not work. “I think the core issue is that if taxpayer-funded lobbying is banned, it doesn’t mean those entities won’t lobby, it just means they won’t register and the public won’t be able to know they’re doing it,” he stated.
Forbes emphasized, “Having the public know what they’re doing is far more effective than banning it which won’t work.”
The pair alongside him on the panel were the bill’s original Senate author (Hall) and its sponsor in the House (Middleton). Both were frustrated with circulated misconceptions about the bill that were repeated to them by local elected officials — specifically, they called them “lies.”
“This is not an anti-lobbying bill — [lobbying] is a foundation of our society and can be traced back to the Magna Carta with the right to petition the government,” Hall stated.
He added, “But that right to petition government applies to people not government(s).”
“Banning taxpayer-funded lobbying would amplify the voices of taxpayers — right now they’re being drowned out by the lobbyists,” Middleton emphasized.
One specific instance Hall cited was a call he received from a local official concerned that the bill would prevent him from being able to contact Hall, his state senator.
“Our bill would not have stopped local elected officials from petitioning or testifying in front of their government, only those lobbyists being paid by taxpayer dollars,” Hall stated.
Middleton told the crowd he first became interested in this topic when he saw “all kinds of conservative legislation [die].”
“Our own money is being spent on lobbying to hurt us, the taxpayer,” Middleton stated.
Some specific legislation Middleton cited — which he believes to be good for Texas — that was lobbied against by local officials and entities such as the Texas Municipal League (TML) include the red-light camera ban; the sanctuary city crackdown; the so-called Save Chick-fil-A bill; and municipal annexation.
Middleton received cheers from the crowd when he followed that up, saying, “Texans are offended that their money is going to the pockets of Austin lobbyists to lobby against their best interests.”
In mid-December, the Wallisville Republican sent a letter out to every municipality in Texas requesting financial disclosure of their lobbying expenditures. TML responded by telling municipalities to treat it as an open records request, comply with the request, or follow the advice of their city attorney if it differed with TML’s.
Middleton informed The Texan about half of the cities have sent in their disclosures thus far.
DeVore pointed to an argument from cities that they may be representing constituencies more progressive than the state legislature, and therefore lobbying on their behalf is essential to have their voices heard by the state government.
To that, Hall stressed, “The state governments are the original elected bodies of the people — the state government created the federal government and the cities and counties.”
“So, they are not independent entities.”
He continued, “We have a responsibility to protect the people of Texas, and their money when it is being misused,” for efforts to lobby against their interests, such as “to kill liberty-focused bills.”
One concern that Forbes cited is that local elected officials don’t have the time to come to Austin to personally lobby on their constituency’s behalf. Lobbyists, Forbes stated, provide access to expert help they need while not inhibiting their day jobs. He reiterated, “So long as the public is aware of what is being spent, then it helps the local officials gain the expert help they need.”
To this, Hall proffered, “For those in West Texas, there’s this new technology they can use to get ahold of me — called a phone.”
Pointing to a discrepancy he sees in the opposition’s line of argument, Middleton added, “We don’t send lobbyists down to City Hall to represent our interests there.”
Both Middleton and Hall stressed the amount of support from everyday taxpayers for this proposal. A December 2018 poll by WPA Intelligence found 91 percent of Texans “opposed using tax dollars to pay for lobbying.”
Of the opposition, Middleton stated, “We hear opposition from local elected officials to this bill, but they won’t speak publicly about it because they know their constituents are for it.”
Middleton added that the intention of his legislation would not prevent elected officials or associations from taking positions, but would only go after registered lobbyists.
Concern over TML was a constant theme from the panelists and audience. TML does not have contracts with cities. Instead, they rely on a medley of other mechanisms. DeVore told the crowd one route they use is selling ad space in their magazine at an inflated rate which is then used for lobbying.
Regarding TML and his theme of transparency, Forbes stated, “It’s very important that you be able to know what TML is lobbying about, being able to know and acting on that knowledge is more beneficial to the public.”
About these methods organizations use to circumvent the “taxpayer dollars” moniker, Hall stated, “No matter how they label it, it’s money from the people.”
An overarching theme behind many Texas policy disputes — such as Austin’s homelessness problem — is state versus local supremacy. For their part, cities have often cited a form of an old conservative adage — “local control” — essentially that government is better the closer to home it is.
To this suggestion, Middleton concluded, “The ultimate form of local control is the individual taxpayer.”
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.