From The Victoria Advocate
Every time Texas legislators gather in Austin, they are accompanied by lots of lobbyists.
This year, for instance, Las Vegas Sands, a gaming company owned by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has hired at least 10 well-connected lobbyists as it plans to try to get gambling legalized in Texas, according to the Texas Tribune.
When local officials — county judges, city councils, school boards and sheriffs — want to have a say about potential legislation, they have to compete for officials’ ears with these special interests.
In the Crossroads, some local governments hire their own lobbyists, while other local officials lobby on their own behalf or rely on organizations like the Texas Municipal League or Texas Association of Counties to lobby for them.
In 2013, for instance, DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler worked with the county’s lobbyist, Steve Holzheauser, to advocate for Senate Bill 1747, which created a $225 million grant, funded by the state, to pay for infrastructure projects in counties with significant energy development.
“Steve worked with me, got me in front of the committees, got me in the back rooms with the different staff members, got me in the inner offices so we could lay these things out on conference tables,” Fowler said.
This year, Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, have introduced legislation that would ban political subdivisions, including city councils, commissioners courts and school boards, from spending taxpayer funds on lobbying.
We believe this legislation goes too far.
Middleton said taxpayers spend up to $41 million annually to fund lobbyists who may, in some cases, argue against their own interest. This is a valid concern. Local officials should be transparent when they spend taxpayer money on lobbying, and explain to their constituents what legislation they are working to support or prevent, and why.
Local officials should also make sure the benefits of lobbyists’ efforts outweigh the costs. The infrastructure fund supported by Fowler, which brought in millions of dollars for road repairs in DeWitt County, is a good example of how local lobbying can work to taxpayers’ benefits.
But banning the use of taxpayer funds on lobbyists altogether would make it far harder for cities and counties to compete with the well-funded lobbyists who fill the back rooms at the Capitol. That’s why Fowler, Calhoun County Judge Richard Meyer and Lavaca County Judge Mark Myers all said the ban is among their biggest concerns for the coming legislature.
Local counties already struggle to pay for unfunded mandates passed by the legislature.
Senate Bill 2, passed in 2019, limited counties’ abilities to set their own property tax rates, another example of state authority taking precedent over local authority.
Local officials should be able to pay for lobbyists, as long as doing so is ultimately in taxpayers’ interest. In politics, money talks, and cities and counties deserve to have their say.
After all, if legislators aren’t listening to lobbyists hired by local governments, there’s a good chance they’ll be listening to lobbyists hired by someone else.
“That will leave a void, and you know nothing operates in a vacuum,” Fowler said of the proposed ban. “That void will be filled.”