Lawmaker on State Tax Committee Also Works for Texas’ Corporate Welfare King

State Representative Drew Springer started working for corporate tax firm Ryan, LLC in March. He doesn't recall any conflicts of interest from a session spent overseeing Texas tax law.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster)
Represenative Drew Springer (R-Muenster) during a 2013 committee hearing  Beth Cortez-Neavel

In early April, in a committee room hidden in the recesses of the Texas Capitol, Representative Drew Springer was explaining a rather dense bit of legislation he had authored. House Bill 2043 would have required county tax appraisers who testify in court during high-dollar property tax disputes to get additional certification. As a result, it would have forced appraisal districts to spend more money and perhaps settle on terms less favorable to the county. If your eyes just glazed over, you’re likely not a corporate tax consultant.

County officials opposed the bill, calling it a needless financial burden, but the legislation had the backing of Ryan, LLC, a Dallas consulting firm that works to secure subsidies and tax breaks for its corporate clients. Ryan also helps companies challenge property tax assessments — a thriving trade in Texas, where property taxes are high and protests can yield big savings for business.

At the hearing, a Ryan representative argued before the House Ways and Means Committee that HB 2043 would simply make the process more fair for property owners. Springer, who sits on the committee, listened quietly. He made no mention that, just three weeks before, Ryan had put him on the company payroll.

Ryan, LLC, which raked in $530 million in earnings last year, wrenches about $2.5 billion from public coffers per year on behalf of corporations. Its clients are among the most powerful companies in the world, including Exxon, Walmart, Verizon and Tyson.

The company’s founder and namesake, G. Brint Ryan, has been a heavy hitter in Texas politics for decades. The Big Spring native currently sits on both the University of North Texas Board of Regents and the Lieutenant Governor’s Tax Policy Advisory Board. Recently, he bankrolled a controversial visit to UNT by Donald Trump Jr., where Ryan enjoyed a “very exclusive and private dinner” with the president’s son, and media were banned from attending the speech.

G. Brint Ryan, chair of the University of North Texas Board of Regents  University of North Texas System

In 2016, Ryan and his wife, Amanda, and the Ryan Texas PAC spent a total of $2 million on Texas’ state elections — including a $5,000 donation to Springer — effectively making Ryan the state’s sixth largest political donor. This year, Ryan, LLC spent at least $725,000 on statehouse lobbyists, a small army that frequently appears in front of the 11-member Ways and Means committee that oversees tax policy.

The company’s aggressive pursuit of both specific tax breaks and its extensive legislative agenda at the Capitol raise questions about the propriety of Springer’s dual role as lawmaker and Ryan, LLC employee.

“It’s smart for one of the state’s biggest tax lobbyists to have an employee on the state tax-writing committee,” said Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “The whole relationship is a conflict.”

Ryan told the Observer that he hired Springer in March as the director of business development services to attract new Texas clients. It’s easy to see how Springer would be an asset. The three-term GOP rep from Muenster has voted for many Ryan-backed measures in the last two sessions, including legislation that would increase tax refunds, grant a tax credit for diesel fuel and triple the available sales and use tax refunds for telecommunications companies. He’s also expressed interest in a bid for speaker of the House.

During an October whirlwind tour of his 300-mile-wide district, a casually dressed Springer spoke with a handful of constituents at a Mexican restaurant in Haskell. Asked about his new job, he told the Observer he couldn’t recall anything this session that presented a conflict of interest. “But we’ll take an eye out on it,” he assured, “and continue to watch it going forward.” He also said the media would help manage the conflict: “Y’all aren’t shy about saying ‘Hey, I think this might be a problem.’”

State Representative Drew Springer, R-Muenster, speaks to constituents in Haskell.  Christopher Collins

Though Springer’s conflict of interest is particularly glaring, many Texas lawmakers are compromised in some way. Because they’re only paid $7,200 a year when the Legislature isn’t in session, most Texas lawmakers keep day jobs outside the Capitol, setting up a minefield of potential conflicts and corruption. Thanks to the state’s notoriously weak ethics laws, lawmakers rarely recuse themselves from votes where they might be helping or hurting their bottom line. “The ethical walls are so low and the guidelines so loose, we’re always questioning who’s really getting taken care of in the Legislature,” said McDonald.

As of 2012, Texas was taking great care of corporations, granting $19 billion a year in business incentives, nearly three times more than any other state, according to a New York Times investigation. Ryan, LLC typically takes 30 percent of the money it wins for clients.

Ryan’s influence has drawn fire not just from the left. The far-right gadfly organization Empower Texans has inveighed against Ryan as a freeloader of sorts. “Mr. Ryan has gotten rich through the force of government,” wrote Christopher Paxton, a free marketeer analyst with the group, in 2014. “For Brint Ryan and his clients, a king’s ransom; for our elected leaders — the defenders of our collective public trust — a generous bounty; for us taxpayers … the bill.”

Springer isn’t the first public servant to go to work for Ryan. In the early 2000s, former Comptroller John Sharp became a principal at Ryan, then simultaneously served on a 2005 tax reform commission for Governor Rick Perry. Bruce Gibson, former state representative and chief of staff for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, joined Ryan, LLC as a high-paid lobbyist in 2007. Roberto de Hoyos, a top Perry aide who oversaw a major incentives program coveted by Ryan’s clients, left the governor’s office to work for Ryan in 2012.

John Otto was both a state representative and worked at Ryan in a position similar to Springer’s  from 2006 to 2015. He spent most of those years as vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. But Ryan told the Observer he’s not maintaining an inside man.

“We aren’t targeting members with a connection to Ways and Means or the Legislature,” Ryan said. He stressed that lawmaker-employees are prohibited from “any involvement with legislative matters for us,” adding that Springer was chosen for being “polished, gregarious and likeable.” The two are also old college friends from UNT.

Staff writer Christopher Collins contributed to this story.

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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