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Local lobbying bill tops $16 million at taxpayer expense

By Kenric Ward

Watchdog.org

Local governments, including public schools, paid $16,062,496 in taxpayer dollars to lobby the Texas Legislature in 2015. More money will be on the line when lawmakers convene in January.

State Sen. Konni Burton wants to shut off the cash spigot at future sessions.

“Many taxpayers don’t even realize their own money is being used to pay lobbyists who are in Austin, advocating for policies that could be in direct conflict with their own beliefs,” the Fort Worth Republican said.

Cities spent the most during the 2015 session, $6,607,499, according to the Texas Legislative Counsel. Special districts were next at $4,629,998, followed by counties ($2,077,500) and school districts ($1,377,499).

The biggest local players were:

  • The city of Austin, which paid $812,500 to its lobbyists.
  • Houston, $630,000.
  • Harris County, $610,000.
  • Fort Worth, $427,500.
  • Tarrant Regional Water District, $392,500.
  • Houston Independent School District, $340,000.
  • North Texas Tollway Authority, $315,000.
  • Harris County Commissioners Court, $305,000
  • San Antonio, $232,500.
  • Edinburg, $225,000.
  • Garland, $225,000.
  • Edinburg Economic Development Corp., $225,000.
  • El Paso County, $225,000.

The figures do not include fees paid to, or expended by, the Texas Municipal League, the powerful association that lobbies on behalf of local governments.

Nor do the dollar amounts account for taxes and spending that resulted from legislation involving local lobbyists.

TML did not provide budget or expenditure data.

The two top-paid lobbyists in 2015 were John Bartram and Sharon Smith — each earning $360,000 for their work during the session. Both are employed by the Armbrust & Brown law firm, which describes itself as “a partner for progress in Austin.”

Jeff Coyle, a spokesman and lobbyist for San Antonio, said his city is budgeting $287,000 for legislative lobbying efforts next year, up from 2015.

“Cities have a very wide range of interests at the state Capitol, including public safety, transportation, economic development, finance and early childhood education,” Coyle told Watchdog.org. “With so much at stake, our community and its residents are best served by utilizing professionals to help the city navigate the complicated legislative process.”

Burton says local governments do not necessarily share their constituents’ fiscal concerns when lobbying state lawmakers.

The upcoming session promises a bruising battle over property taxes. Cities, counties and school districts vow to fight legislation — including Senate Bill 2 — that seeks to lower Texas’ local levies, currently sixth highest in the nation.

Burton introduced Senate Bill 241 to bar cities, counties, schools and local agencies from spending tax dollars on lobbyists. The measure would effectively shut off TML’s cash flow.

“The governing body of a political subdivision may not spend public money to directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence the outcome of any legislation pending before the Legislature,” Burton’s bill states.

Encountering well-heeled opposition from TML and local lobbyists, similar legislation died in committee in 2015. TML executive director Bennett Sandlin did not respond to Watchdog’s inquiries.

Coyle defended municipal lobbying, saying, “Ours is the most transparent form of advocacy. Our legislative agenda is discussed in public meetings and approved by the City Council.”

“I provide regular updates on our activities throughout the legislative session. The same cannot be said for most others actively engaged at the Capitol,” he added.

Terry Putnam, a tax activist in Georgetown, Texas, said municipal lobbying in Austin “is not a valid city function.”

“This is clearly an expansion of government authority and an intrusion into the personal prerogatives of citizens,” Putnam said.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said that while lobbyists for cities and counties tout the virtues of “local control,” homeowners and businesses shoulder increasingly heavy local tax bills.

“Let’s talk about local liberation,” Campbell suggested.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Reach him at kward@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward.