The bill states, “A political subdivision may not spend public funds: (1) to hire an individual required to register as a lobbyist under Chapter 305 for the purpose of lobbying a member of the legislature; or (2) to pay a nonprofit state association or organization that: (A) primarily represents political subdivisions; and (B) hires or contracts with an individual required to register as a lobbyist under Chapter 305.”
Taxpayer-funded lobbyists tend to take two forms: one hired explicitly by a locality to advocate on their behalf or one hired by a locality advocacy organization that receives dues from member entities.
Two such examples of the latter are the Texas Municipal League (TML) and the Texas Association of Counties (TAC). TML promotes the interests of cities large and small in Texas, and TAC does the same for counties.
HB 749 also provides injunctive recourse for taxpayers should a political subdivision violate this prohibition. A plaintiff which succeeds in such a legal challenge will receive injunctive relief “to prevent any further activity prohibited … or any further payments of public funds related to the prohibited activity” as well as financial relief to pay for legal fees and costs incurred during the challenge.
“Despite the hardships facing hardworking Texans, our tax money is still being diverted into the pockets of Austin lobbyists, away from police, firefighters, roads, and teachers,” said Middleton in a press release.
“Taxpayers are being forced to pay for lobbyists that advocate against the taxpayer and basic good governance.”
“For example, taxpayer-funded lobbyists have lobbied against property tax relief, election integrity, disclosures of what bonds truly cost taxpayers, the constitutional ban on a state income tax, and they even opposed the bill to fund and protect the teacher retirement system pension. We must end this inexcusable waste and abuse of taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” he added.
The TML had not returned a request for comment on the bill by the time of publishing.
The bill that died in the House last session was sponsored by Middleton, but it was originally filed in the Senate by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) through which it passed before moving to the lower chamber.
The death knell tolled as Rep. Trent Ashby’s (R-Lufkin) amendment to an amendment of Middleton’s exempted all but 20 of Texas’ counties — carving counties, and all localities therein, below 250,000 in population out of the bill.
Despite the defeat, Hall and Middleton continued to bang the legislation’s drum during the interim. At a Texas Public Policy Foundation panel in January, Hall stated, “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.”
Middleton added, “Texans are offended that their money is going to the pockets of Austin lobbyists to lobby against their best interests.”
Since the 2019 session, the Wallisville Republican has sent out two formal legislative requests to cities for lists of their public-financed lobbying expenditures — one last December and another on November 30.
Back in October, over 40 members of the Texas House signed their names to a pledge to ban the practice in the 87th Legislative Session.
One of the criticisms of the bill is that localities will simply create other positions, not registered as lobbyists, from which to lobby rather than hire an outside registered lobbyist. Indirect lobbying, critics say, will supplant the current direct practice.
Sec. 305.003 of the Texas Government Code lays out parameters for lobbyist registration. The Texas Ethics Commission states that an individual must register as a lobbyist with the state if they receive $1,560 in a calendar quarter as compensation for lobbying services — not including personal expenses for food, lodging, and travel. This is known as the “contribution and reimbursement threshold.”
Additionally, anyone who spends more than $780 in lobbying expenditures in a calendar quarter must also register as a lobbyist — known as the “expenditure threshold.”
An individual that meets the “contribution and reimbursement” requirements but not the “expenditure” one does not have to register as a lobbyist if no more than 40 hours is spent lobbying in a given calendar quarter.
Middleton concluded in the press release, “Up to $41 million per year has been spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying, even though 91% of all Texans oppose the practice. It’s time to defund this bureaucracy.”
What Middleton references is a 2019 poll from WPA Intelligence, a conservative-leaning private polling firm, which indicated that 91 percent of registered Texas voters opposed the practice.
The Republican Party of Texas approved a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying as part of their legislative priorities back in July for the second consecutive session.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday in front of the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Update: Sen. Hall filed his bill, Senate Bill 234, banning taxpayer-funded lobbying Tuesday afternoon, issuing the following statement: “Some examples on how their money has been used to work against their best interests 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 when 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. Nothing in the bill would prevent local governments from hiring an individual or organization to monitor legislation in the interest of keeping local officials educated and informed. It simply prevents using public money for lobbying purposes. It also does not prevent local officials from communicating directly with their state representatives and senators. Rather, it encourages and enhances direct participation between officials at the local and state levels. Earlier this year, an overwhelming 94% of Republican voters expressed their support for ending taxpayer-funded lobbying by voting ‘yes’ for Proposition 3 in the 2020 primary. It’s unethical to use that money to influence legislation to their advantage by hiring lobbyists and lobby firms to peddle their opinions about bills and influence legislators. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for lobbying that advocates against their interests, such as cities lobbying against bills that could lead to lower taxes. Taxpayers should not have to pay for influencing legislators about a cause they don’t support.”
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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 quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.