House Committee Takes on the Enemy: Public Lobbyists

State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) speaks against the city's Equal Rights Ordinance before it passed on Dec. 8.
City of Plano
State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) speaks against the city's Equal Rights Ordinance before it passed on Dec. 8.

A spectre is haunting the Capitol—the spectre of taxpayer-funded lobbyists.

They sound awful, don’t they? Lobbyists are unpopular, often justifiably so, and taxes are even more unpopular. Lobbyists who represent governmental entities have increasingly become pariahs at the Capitol. Vilified in the last election cycle, some lawmakers, like state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Ft. Worth), have refused to let them in their office, no matter who they represent—even though she was happy to take their campaign contributions during her race.

Now, that derision may turn into law. On Thursday, the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics heard two bills from state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) that would prohibit lobbyists from being hired by certain entities with public funding. House Bill 1257 would prevent any political unit that collects taxes, like cities and counties, from hiring lobbyists. House Bill 3219 would do the same for school districts—and Shaheen, a freshman, can count Gov. Greg Abbott among the backers of the bill.

How could anyone object to that?

“The best lobbying is between legislators and elected officials,” Shaheen told the committee. Lobbyists were superfluous in Austin, he said, and served no real use. Peggy Venable, the policy director for Americans For Prosperity, agreed. She told the committee that money spent on lobbyists was a shameful waste. Full of concern for the sanctity of public education, she felt that school districts should be spending that money on kids. (Venable’s group has been one of the most vociferous proponents of state money for private schools.)

But Venable was a lone voice in support of the bills. Most witnesses, including representatives of school districts and cities, spoke against them. Why?

Hiring lobbyists, they said, was a time-saving measure that allowed entities far from Austin to keep meticulous track of bills that affect them, and have a say at the table when the rubber meets the road. The alternative is simply not realistic. It makes no sense, they said, to force volunteer school board trustees and city councilmen, who are not well paid, if it all, to trek to Austin and learn the ins and outs of the session.

The crusade against taxpayer-funded lobbyists is a great source of red meat for the Republican primary, but it ignores some fundamental things about how the Legislature works. For one, it’s extremely difficult to understand how the Legislature works, when it’s working at all. Capitol insiders speak their own language, and it takes a while to learn. Much happens behind the scenes, and the session moves so fast that it’s difficult for even well-informed observers to keep track of things. Legislators routinely work in 16-hour blocks and meet at unpredictable hours.

If you’re a county commissioner up in Amarillo, or a trustee of a school district in Houston, you can call up your legislators, sure. But you have better things to do than haul yourself to Austin and learn the intricacies of the legislative process so you can have a say on the hundreds of bills that could mean hard or flush times for the people you represent.

And if you’re representing a city that has a misfortune to be at odds with a powerful lobbying interest, like AT&T or the oil & gas industry, you can bet that they’ll have their own army of lobbyists in Austin’s back-rooms trying to cut you down. Without your own to match them, you’re at significant disadvantage.

Ideally, of course, legislators themselves would be aggressive advocates for their own constituents. But the quality of legislators varies widely. If you’re a local official, your state representative may be ideologically opposed to public education. Or he or she may want to help, but be powerless. Or they might be totally disconnected from their local governments—last year, former New Braunfels Mayor Gale Pospisil told me she’d never met the state senator who represents New Braunfels, Donna Campbell, even though Campbell lived in the city.

After local officials pleaded their case, the committee seemed skeptical of Shaheen’s bill. State Rep. Lyle Larson, once a San Antonio city councilman, noted that he only got paid $20 per city council meeting. He didn’t think his former colleagues could justify traveling to Austin much on that salary. Larson and state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) posed a question to Shaheen: The state of Texas had its own taxpayer-funded “government relations” team in Washington, D.C. Should that be undone?

“To be transparent, I didn’t know we had that until I was sitting here today,” said Shaheen. His quickly-generated rejoinder was that the Texas congressional delegation should advocate for Texas, not taxpayer-funded lobbyists. “Our congressmen are full-time congressmen,” said Shaheen. To which Larson replied: “Well, sort of.”

Davis continued the line of questioning. If the Lubbock City Council should be responsible for advocating for bills in Austin, shouldn’t Austin legislators live by the same principle? “I would assume that you would believe that we as state representatives should be responsible for going to Washington, D.C. to talk to congressmen,” said Davis. “If so, how many trips do you have lined up?”

Shaheen laughed. His bills were left pending in committee.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 7:04 pm CST
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