• April 12, 2021
 Analysis: The fight over local control turns to representation – and lobbyists

Downtown Pearsall in South Texas. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Analysis: The fight over local control turns to representation – and lobbyists

Efforts to bar local governments from hiring outside lobbyists or joining associations that lobby the state government are gaining steam, after falling short two years ago.

If Texas lawmakers go ahead with current proposals, they’ll be hurting small towns more than big cities, and rural counties more than urban ones.

The bigger local governments have the budgets to keep “government liaison” teams on staff, and sending actual government employees to Austin would still be allowed. Smaller ones don’t have the money to do that; they join associations that pool resources from lots of local governments and lobby on their behalf.

The big ones are, incidentally, some of the most Democratic precincts of the state — the big blue splotches on a Texas election map. The little ones are some of the most Republican — the red wash that covers most of that map.

“The best government is the government closest to the people” was a reliable political line of long standing until just a few years ago. But top state officials in Texas have been warring with local governments for years, over property and sales taxes, state mandates that require local spending, local restrictions during the pandemic, police funding, ride-share regulations — a broad array of disagreements over where one government’s power stops and the other’s starts.

The argument for lobbying limits has become a conservative rallying point, focused for public argument’s sake on whether taxpayers want local governments lobbying to increase state spending that’s funded by those same taxpayers. Local officials have argued, with some success, so far, that their lobbyists are keeping an eye on state lawmakers on behalf of those voters. And that the voters would boot them if they didn’t like it.

This isn’t an argument for or against lobbyists. Lobbyists might be even less popular than journalists. And they’ll still be here after the ban, if it passes. Some of them might be city employees instead of independent “hired guns,” but they’ll be here.

Legislation designed to get rid of what the supporters call “taxpayer-funded lobbyists” failed in the 2019 legislative session. It sang through the Senate and croaked in the House. This time, the Senate support appears to be intact, and new House Speaker Dade Phelan has said he supports the legislation — a good omen for the sponsors.

The current version would prohibit “political subdivisions” from contracting with people who lobby the Legislature, or from joining any association — like the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Municipal League or the Texas Association of School Administrators, for example — that in turn hires contract lobbyists, or that is primarily a lobbying outfit.

A “political subdivision” is, according to the Texas government code, “a county, municipality, special district, school district, junior college district, housing authority, or other political subdivision of this state or any other state.”

It doesn’t include organizations that don’t meet that definition but that also receive taxpayer money, like chambers of commerce and charter schools. They’d still be allowed to hire lobbyists under the currently proposed ban.

Local governments are already barred from using state money to lobby the state. And state agencies are barred from lobbying the Legislature, but they’re allowed to say what they want as long as they don’t agitate for it.

That “legislative liaison” line is a fuzzy one. All of the big state agencies and a fair number of the small ones have people roaming the Texas Capitol to make sure lawmakers know what would help or hurt their operations. They’re allowed to provide information and expert testimony, so long as they don’t cross into advocacy.

Local governments are allowed to advocate, to come to Austin and say, “Hey, we need a low-water crossing on this state road,” or whatever it is they’re trying to get done. And the state has a hand in this, too, when it’s pleading to people in Washington for federal money for this or for that. State agencies and universities have been known to hire lobbyists and outside consultants and law firms to help their efforts. But that’s not part of the proposed ban.

Nor is the Office of State-Federal Relations, a Texas outpost in Washington, D.C., a division of the governor’s office with a mission that sounds like the kind of things a lobbyist might do.

From the governor’s website: “OSFR is the state’s advocate in Washington, DC, representing state government with the administration, Congress, and federal agencies to advocate the interests of Texas, especially as interests relate to the missions and functions of Texas state government. State government includes the legislature, state agencies, and state officials. Texas State officials realize that in order for the state government to maintain a strong position in our relationship with the federal government, Texas must maintain a real presence in Washington, DC.”

That’s a very interesting loophole.

Author: ROSS RAMSEYThe Texas Tribune

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Municipal League have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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