For years, local mayors, county commissioners, school board trustees, sheriffs, and police officers have been represented before the Texas Legislature by paid advocates hired by relevant associations.
Longtime legislators will agree that this is how Austin works best and is least expensive. Local citizens address issues and provide solutions to associations like the Texas Municipal League (TML), the North Texas Commission (NTC), the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT). They, in turn, carry those solutions to Austin where they have established relationship with legislators who can address those issues.
Now, this method of operation is in jeopardy with bills that have been filed in the Texas Legislature to end the practice. Bills like House Bill 749 (Middleton), Senate Bill 234 (Hall), and Senate Bill 10 (Bettencourt) threaten to make it illegal for taxpayer funds to be used to join these organizations, resulting in an immediate loss of adequate representation before the Legislature.
Proponents of the bill say that taxpayer funds should not be used to influence legislation in Austin while opponents of the bill say this is the best way for local citizens to have a voice and for legislators to have the most up-to-date information.
For example, TML provides lawmakers with information about issues related to water supply, right-of-way, air quality, transportation, and a medley of other things. And that is just one organization. Other organizations provide specific information regarding their aspect of the community. Without representation from these organizations, state leaders would lose an unbelievable number of resources for information.
The current method may also be the most cost-effective method. Eric Fox with the aeronautics firm Lockheed-Martin testifying before the House State Affairs Committee on behalf of NTC contended that “the use of taxpayer dollars is minimal for local communities to be represented by government affairs professionals in Austin.”
In addition, this is how major projects get done according to Fox, who cited the development of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport as one of the projects which occurred through paid advocates working with legislators. “It is troubling to see this proposed legislation promoted as taxpayer protection,” Fox said. “As local business leaders we are amongst the largest Texas taxpayers…and we want to make it clear that we want our local partners to exercise their right to hire professional lobbyists to help navigate the legislative process, provide institutional knowledge and represent local interests.”
Others point out that the demands of running a city, county, police department or school district prevent them being represented properly in Austin without associational representation and that the result of the passage of these bills would be that legislators would hear primarily from private corporate interests.
When similar bills were advanced by Hall and Middleton in the 86th Texas Legislature, former state representative Jonathan Stickland weighed in with a Twitter attack against Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley stating that “Whitley didn’t need a lobbyist to tell me to vote against banning taxpayer funded lobbying.”
This prompted the response from Dubravka Romano with TASB, “so its ok for you to hear from paid corporate lobbyists, but not from elected officials about issues that matter to their local communities? Do I have that right?”
It is questionable if we need a state law prohibiting paid representation in Austin for taxing entities. If citizens in a city, town or county do not want money spent on Austin advocates they can tell their local officials not to join groups that provide that representation. Should we centralize government to the point where the state dictates how local taxpayers can spend their money?
The Texas Legislature has always worked best when local citizens are able provide solutions to Austin and they are advanced by concerned legislators. This type of grassroots democracy seems most possible if citizens have appropriate representation from their local governmental entities.
To be clear, these bills do not outlaw lobbying. Big cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio would still be able to hire governmental affairs experts to come to Austin to advocate for their needs. Smaller communities without the budgetary resources to hire full-time employees to represent them would see a significant lapse in representation. As one state representative lamented, “My county would be left out in the cold.”