Local governments aren’t posting lobbying records despite new law

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Local governments across Texas are resisting a state law that took effect in September requiring that they publicly post their lobbying information on their websites.

However, the resistance doesn’t appear to be based on opposition to the intent of the new law. Rather, cities, counties, school districts, and other local governments object to the statute’s admittedly murky language and differing reads on what it requires.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, in December sent letters to school districts, cities and counties, asking for their lobbying records and noting that Senate Bill 65, as passed, requires these documents to be posted on the government entities’ websites.

For the most part, SB 65 relates to increasing oversight on state agencies’ contracting practices. The posting requirement for lobbying was added via an amendment co-authored by Middleton, who tried last session to make it illegal for many local governments to spend money on lobbying.

Middleton said he sent the letters to make sure governments are complying with the new law and that he got about a 50 percent response to his 3,000 letters.

He said several cities denied having employed lobbyists, despite public records showing they have. And some school districts provided records that didn’t fulfill the law’s requirements, the southeast Texas legislator said. “They didn’t provide anything that was in compliance with the law.”

Middleton noted that the bill “doesn’t require anyone [to] stop lobbying. … It just asks that, if they are going to use taxpayer money to lobby, they disclose it.”

Cities of all sizes engage lobbyists, mostly during legislative sessions. Over 100 towns and cities, two dozen school districts and 27 counties employed lobbyists last session.

Among the information that is supposed to be posted is a list of legislation lobbied for or against and the amount the government body spent on lobbying in the previous fiscal year. The amendment also restated the fact that documents involving lobbying deals are subject to the state’s open records law.

The wording of the amendment is part of what is slowing compliance. It implies that the only entities subject to the disclosure are those that contract with a state agency for lobbying. The intent, Middleton said, was to include state-agency help in the definition of lobbying, not to limit the disclosure only to that.

 He acknowledged the language is not as clear as it could be.

“The wording is something that will be cleaned up next session,” Middleton said.

The amendment, authored by state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, was added two days before the bill passed in May. Capriglione did not respond to a text seeking an interview.

The Texas Municipal League advised the cities and counties it represents to treat Middleton’s letter as an open records request.

Proponents of SB65 “couldn’t use a state-agency bill to impose … requirements on cities,” Scott Houston, general counsel for TML said in an email.  “We could have told our members that, before responding to the letter, they should confirm whether their city has ever entered into a consulting services contract with the state in the first place.”

Both TML and the Texas Association of School Boards, as well as most other associations covering governments, provide lobbying as part of the dues those government entities pay. Government entities are not required to file reports on such spending.

“The bill has limited applicability to school districts,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services at TASB. “Most lobbying done by school boards is done through associations like us or they join a group that represents their interests, like an association of rural schools.”

However, many local governments also hire their own lobbyists.

The City of Baytown, for instance, told Middleton that it has no contract for “consulting services” with any state agency and therefore provided no records about lobbying.  The city’s interpretation of the law is similar to that of the TML; they had no consulting contracts with the state.

State records show Baytown engaged a private lobbyist during the 2019 legislative session.

The city provided documents showing it has spent $319,000 on lobbying in the last decade. But none of that lobbying is documented on the city website.

“If there were a demand for this information, we would have it on the website immediately,” Baytown spokesman Mark Miller said. “There’s really nothing we want to hide, and we are glad to provide this information.”

He added that the city uses lobbyists – which he called “legislative consultants” – to keep officials advised of bills that could affect Baytown.

While the TML provides lobbying services, Miller said, Baytown leaders find it is more productive to hire someone to do work specific to their city.

The blowback Middleton is feeling, though, is likely due to a bill that failed rather than the one that passed. He is one of a group of lawmakers who sought an outright ban on municipal lobbying by larger cities and counties.

Senate Bill 29 failed after numerous hearings and debates. Middleton wrote the house companion to that measure.

Those supporting the measure included representatives from Tea Party affiliates and other Republican groups.

Among the bill’s opponents were lobbyists for Houston, Austin and San Antonio and associations representing county judges and commissioners. TASB also opposed it.

 “Everyone should have a voice in issues that affect them as a body,” Baskin, of TASB, said.

The Texas Press Association registered in favor of SB29 but did not have a representative speak.

“We lobby for open meetings and public records,” said Donnis Baggett, who lobbies for the TPA. “In so many cases, we find ourselves across the table from someone opposing transparency whose check is being paid by taxpayers. Something about paying someone with taxpayer money to oppose transparency doesn’t feel right.”

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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