The Texas House was prepared to consider a bill today that would ban local governments and other public taxing entities from using taxpayer dollars to hire lobbyists to advocate on taxation, bonds, and ethics-related issues at the state level. However, the bill was pulled after a technical error was discovered.
SB 29, authored by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), passed through the Senate on April 17. The main sponsor of the bill in the House is Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville).
Reform on the issue has been clamored for by Texans for a few years with proponents arguing that taxpayer-funded entities using taxpayer money to lobby on taxation issues presents a clear conflict of interest.
A poll conducted earlier this year by WPA Intelligence, a conservative data and research firm, found that 91 percent of registered Texas voters oppose using tax dollars to fund lobbyists. Middleton introduced SB 29’s companion bill, HB 281, which passed out of the State Affairs committee but died in calendars.
SB 29 states, “The governing body of a political subdivision may not spend public money to directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence the outcome of any legislation pending before the legislature related to: taxation; bond elections; tax-supported debt; and ethics and transparency of public servants.”
The ban applies to any political subdivision that imposes a tax, as well as transit, regional mobility, and toll road authorities.
The bill does not prohibit — and even explicitly states as much — employees of these entities or elected officials from testifying on behalf of, or advocating for or against, any given legislation.
It also allows a governing body of a nonprofit association or similar organization to spend money collected in membership dues or fees on advocacy, provided that the organization or members of the organization do not lobby for or against pending legislation relating to the specified categories above.
Under SB 29, if an aforementioned entity does hire a lobbyist to influence any given legislation, financial records must be disclosed on any year-end financial report.
At the committee hearing for HB 281 on February 27, Middleton said of his bill, “It encourages communication between communities and state legislators by removing this costly, taxpayer-funded middleman.”
Lobbyists must register with the Texas Ethics Commission, which records lobbyists, their clients, and the amount of money flowing from the latter to the former.
In 2018, over 1,600 lobbyists registered with the state, and this year that number increased to 1,800.
“Political subdivisions spend up to $41 million a year on lobbyists,” Middleton continued. The bill, Middleton stated, “levels the playing field between the taxpayers and those who are often paid to work against them.”
Middleton also pointed to the imbalance between urban and rural areas’ ability to lobby. According to Middleton, Austin’s spending on lobbying is around $700,000 a year which dwarfs other entities. For comparison, Texas Ethics Commission records show that Nueces County spent less than $100,000 in 2018.
The bill has come under fire from organizations like Texans for Strong Public Schools, the Texas Association of School Boards, and Families for Property Rights and Neighborhood Safety who say it silences the voice of local government and school advocates.
Also among the opposition to the bill is the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas (PAAT), whose President, Tom Forbes, testified in front of the State Affairs committee right after Middleton finished. “PAAT supports the right of any institution, entity, or individual to engage expert and professional help to exercise its constitutional right to petition the government,” Forbes said.
He went on to say, “Public entities need all sorts of professionals…and should also have access to professional assistance in dealing with the complexities of state government.”
Texas requires lobbyists to re-register annually and report compensation, line item expenditures, clients, employers, and more.
With the bill back in committee to correct a technical error, further action on it has been temporarily delayed. Although a rumored Saturday session tomorrow may mean that the bill will be considered over the weekend.
State Affairs committee chairman Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) is also a sponsor of the House version of SB 29.
If passed, the law would go into effect on September 1, 2019.
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 chairing the Edmund Burke fan club.