Senator: Lift veil on lobbying using taxpayer cash

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Texas money

A measure putting a new spotlight the battle against municipal lobbying reform moved a step closer to reality this week, as lawmakers pushed through Senate Bill 445, which would make taxpayer-funded entities put the specifics of issue advocacy on their websites.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who earlier this session floated a bill that would ban lobbying by cities, counties, school systems and special districts, retooled her effort and authored the legislation that she claims would make the practice more transparent.

“It was long before I ran for office that I found out about this,” Burton, elected in 2014, said during a Tuesday discussion on the floor for her bill. “It was very frustrating that I didn’t know where my taxpayer dollars were going. All I’m looking for is the taxing entity to just state [spending] so that people can look it up.”

Her crusade to ban, then make more transparent municipal lobbying has made her a darling of the most conservative wing of state Republicans. She has also prohibited lobbyists from public entities from coming to her office for business.

Senator Konni Burton, R-Colleyville

Her bill requires most publicly-funded enterprises, from cities to municipal utility districts, to publish expenditures made for lobbying on their website, and in a report to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Opponents of the measure include Dax Gonzalez, government relations manager for the Texas Association of School Boards, who said it creates more bureaucracy and busy work for administrators.

“It’s because of bills like this that the districts feel compelled to work with legislators,” Gonzalez said.

Every major city in the state spends up to six figures to Austin lobbyists, from Bedford to Uvalde and everyone in between.

“So they hire these lobbyists and no one knows where it’s going,” Burton said in pitching her bill to colleagues. “The taxpayer doesn’t know how much is going to this lobbyist and all I am asking is that this is transparent.”

The amounts are significant. The liberal-leaning government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice reported that during the 2013 legislative session the city of Austin paid between $550,000 and $1,160,000 on lobbying.

The city of Houston paid between $485,000 and $975,000.

Both cities spending more than numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Verizon, Exxon, Pfizer, and Dow Chemical.

It’s the second session in a row that Burton has tackled the issue of taxpayer-backed lobbying. Senate Bill 1862 last session sought to ban governments from lobbying.

Her about face from prohibition to fuller disclosure is no solace to lobbyists who include municipalities as their clients.

“This bill is intended, in our belief, to single out this one expenditure, “ said Snapper Carr, a veteran lobbyist whose clients this session include the cities of Austin, Denton and Corpus Christi. “

“Local lobbying is the most transparent in the state, without a close second. Public contracts are posted online, the deals are approved in public meetings, posted as agenda items,” he said.  “And we are registered for those clients with the Texas Ethics Commission. This as opposed to the private sector, which does not have to what their agenda is and what they will be working on or what the exact amount paid is.”

He’s mostly correct. But a search by The Texas Monitor of the agendas, minutes and check registers of county commissions, city councils and school boards discovered the entries for lobbying allotments, although not to the detail Burton’s bill would require.

And further digging at the Texas Ethics Commission site is required to find how much each lobbyist spent, but with reporting details vague.

The city of Lubbock is paying $111,000 this year for the services of five lobbyists, an allotment represented in an agenda item from February.

The lobbyists in the early part of the session spent the cash doing exactly what they are paid to do — wine and dine influencers.

One of them who lists the city as a client spent $2,790 on food and drink in January, reports show, although there is no breakdown between clients and spending. Another spent $1,300 in February and March, $920 of it on a state representative, who does not have to be named in the report.

Fort Bend County has also secured a team of lobbyists this session, as it has done for years. A search of minutes for the Fort Bend Commissioner’s Court turns up no hits for the words/terms ‘lobby” “lobbyist” or “government relations.”

Instead, the search term is “consultants,” which leads to the contracts approved for the current session, in this case a monthly retainer of $1,750 to three lobbyists for two years for a total of $126,000.

At the Arlington Independent School District, which is employing three lobbyists this session, the discovery is almost impossible. There is no keyword search for the school board meeting archive.

Searching agendas starting in 2014  using the term “legisla” found the meeting at which a five-year deal was approved for $64,800 a year buried in the minutes. A cross check with the district’s check register finds the $5,400 monthly retainer payments.

Foes of additional transparency note that current lobbying disclosure statute applies to lobbyists working for both public and private enterprises with regard to the amount of information required to be disclosed.

“The bill treats cities and other groups differently,” said Jeff Coyle, director of Government and Public Affairs for the city of San Antonio. “If there were disclosures in the ethics process that applied to everyone, this would not be as objectionable.”

Burton’s measure passed the Senate 24-7 and now moves to the House.

Contact Steve Miller at [email protected] or 832-303-9420

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