Sometimes, I really feel the distance between East Texas and Austin. It’s a five-hour drive for me, but Austin can seem much, much farther away when important bills on being debated at the Capitol. My voice simply doesn’t carry like the voices of lobbyists ensconced in their Austin offices, with easy access to members of the Legislature.
That was true even when I was an editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
But lawmakers can even the odds a little this session, by ensuring that my taxpayer dollars aren’t used to fund lobbyists—who too often fight for things that go against my interests. Some cities and counties pay lobbyists millions of dollars in hopes of convincing the Legislature to allow them to tax and regulate their citizens more.
House Bill 749 by state Rep. Mayes Middleton would correct that imbalance. It would prohibit a political subdivision—a city, county, school district or special district—from hiring lobbyists or from paying association (such as the Texas Municipal League) to fund lobbyists for them. And it will remind them I—the taxpayer—am the one in charge.
That bill could soon come up for a vote on the House floor.
As we at the Texas Public Policy Foundation have learned, local governments spent as much as $41 million on outside firms and individuals to lobby the Legislature in 2017. That’s more than 10% of all lobby dollars spent in that Session. With their easy access to lawmakers and their insider knowledge of how the Pink Dome operates, lobbyists wield much more power than the average citizen can hope to.
The city of Houston, for example, will spend more than $1 million this year on lobbyists. Fort Worth will spend close to $1.1 million over the two-year biennium. Other cities bring lobbying in-house by hiring their own. The city of Austin’s Intergovernmental Relations department will cost its taxpayers more than $1.8 million this year. Department employees will be at the capitol vigorously opposing limits on taxes, spending and appraisal reform, and supporting the city’s authority to regulate sick leave, payday lending, and “fair chance” hiring.
They’ll push for more “local options for revenue expansion” (that means new taxes) and push back against a measure that would close a loophole that some cities and counties used to claim that the COVID-19 “disaster” lets them raise taxes above 3.5% without getting voter approval.
This isn’t a free speech issue. Governments don’t have rights; only people do. Governments have powers, and they shouldn’t use my taxes to lobby the Legislature for more.
The truth is that elected officials are free reach out to lawmakers themselves, just as we private citizens can. And legislators listen. Even the Texas Municipal League says “When the legislature is in session, nothing compares to the effectiveness of city officials testifying at the Capitol.”
In reality, city officials don’t even have to show up. A call will do, or even a virtual meeting on Zoom. My experience is that representatives are eager to hear from local leaders closest to their constituents over slick Austin lobbyists who are rarely in their districts.
This is a bipartisan issue. And Texans are in agreement on it. According to a new poll, 86% of Texans oppose allowing tax dollars to fund lobbyists. Only 7% say the practice is OK.
The power we give to local governments on loan from taxpayers. That power shouldn’t be abused by spending our own money to grab for more of it.