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Measure defeated in 2019 that would have banned local governments from using public funds to lobby the Texas Legislature, reports Omar Ochoa - texas legislature - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured, from left: McAllen City Commissioner Javier Villalobos; McAllen City Commissioner Tania Ramírez; and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission.  Muñoz’ House District 36 includes 25 percent of the City of McAllen, 70 percent of the City of Mission, and 76 percent of the City of Pharr. This image was taken on Thursday, January 16, 2020, at the Pharr Events Center during the State of the City Address by Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernández, MD.

Photograph By PETER SALINAS

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Measure defeated in 2019 that would have banned local governments from using public funds to lobby the Texas Legislature, reports City Attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Should local governments in Texas be prevented from using public funds to support and oppose proposals in the Texas Legislature that are important to the elected and appointed leadership of those communities?

In 2019, that issue was supported by the Texas Senate, but opposed by the Texas House of Representatives, which defeated Senate Bill 29, by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, on a vote of 58 Yeas, 85 Nays, 2 Present, not voting, according to Edinburg City Attorney Omar Ochoa.

“Supporters of Senate Bill 29 said the measure would have helped end what they said is the practice of local governments using tax dollars to lobby the Legislature for legislation that would take even more money from citizens and residents,” Ochoa said, citing the House Research Organization’s bill analysis of the proposal. “The bill would have prohibited political subdivisions, including cities, counties, school districts, and transportation authorities, from hiring contract lobbyists to influence legislation specifically related to taxation, bond elections, tax-supported debt, and ethics.”

The House Research Organization is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives. It provides to state lawmakers and to the public daily reports on each major piece of legislation, with detailed background on the history and intent of those bills, and who supports and opposes those measures.

“Opponents of Senate Bill 29 said the legislation would have limited the ability of cities, counties, school districts, and other local governments to advocate on behalf their communities,” Ochoa further quoted the House Research Organization bill analysis. “It is not an efficient use of taxpayer money to pay for certain local government employees, who have other needs and full-time jobs in the community, to travel to the Texas Capitol to attend multiple committee hearings, visit legislative offices, and field requests from members.”

The Texas Legislature will begin its five-month regular session in early January 2021, and this legislation or similar measures may well be introduced for action again, he noted. Numerous local governments in the Valley, such as McAllen, Pharr, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, and the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority  for many years have regularly hired lobbyists to work before the Texas Legislature and in Congress, he noted.

In late December 2019, as part of its publication, “Focus Report – Major Issues of the 86th Texas Legislature” – which covered highlights of the work done by state lawmakers from January through May 2019 – Senate Bill 29 was reviewed in detail.

That bill analysis follows:

Banning local governments from using public funds to lobby certain bills

Senate Bill 29 by Sen. Bob Hall
Died in the House

Senate Bill 29 would have prohibited the governing body of a political subdivision from spending public money to influence or attempt to influence directly or indirectly the outcome of legislation pending before the Legislature related to:

• Taxation, including implementation, rates, and administration;
• Bond elections;
• Tax-supported debt; or
• Ethics and transparency of public servants.

The bill would have applied to political subdivisions that imposed a tax and to regional mobility authorities, toll road authorities, or transit authorities.

Senate Bill 29 would not have prohibited an officer or employee of a political subdivision from:

• Providing information or appearing before a legislative committee at the request of a member;

• Advocating for or against, influencing, or attempting to influence pending legislation while acting as an elected officer; or

• Advocating for or against, influencing, or attempting to influence pending legislation if those actions did not require a person to register as a lobbyist.

In certain circumstances, the governing body of a political subdivision could have spent money in its name for membership fees and dues of a nonprofit state association or organization of similarly situated political subdivisions if the organization did not influence legislation as prohibited by the bill.

If a political subdivision or organization engaged in an activity prohibited by Senate Bill 29, a taxpayer or resident of the subdivision would have been entitled to appropriate injunctive relief to prevent any further activity. A taxpayer or resident who prevailed in an action would have been entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in bringing the action.

A political subdivision that used public money to influence or attempt to influence pending legislation would have had to disclose on a comprehensive annual financial report the total amount spent that fiscal year to compensate registered lobbyists. This provision would not have required a political subdivision or authority to prepare a separate comprehensive annual financial report for that disclosure.

Supporters said

Senate Bill 29 would help end the practice of local governments using tax dollars to lobby the Legislature for measures that would take more money from citizens and residents. The bill would prohibit political subdivisions, including cities, counties, school districts, and transportation authorities, from hiring contract lobbyists to influence legislation specifically related to taxation, bond elections, tax-supported debt, and ethics.

Local governments use millions of dollars of taxpayer money each year for lobbying, diverting those funds from important community services. The lobbyists typically represent the best-funded and most well connected individuals, not average citizens. Payments are made with no transparency because local governments do not divulge how much money is paid to these lobbyists.

Not only is it unfair for taxpayer money to be used for lobbying activities against most taxpayers’ interests,
but large metropolitan areas have the budget to spend much more on contract lobbying than rural districts, giving them an advantage. This bill would level the playing field between urban and rural areas, giving them equal representation at the Legislature.

Senate Bill 29 would ensure that taxpayer dollars were not used against taxpayer wishes but also would continue to allow lobbying on topics other than taxation, bond elections, public debt, and government ethics. 

Local governments would have to report lobbying expenses in a comprehensive annual financial report, ensuring transparent use of public funds. The bill also would allow local elected officials and their staff to lobby the Legislature for any issue and local governments to join an organization representing local governments, as is already allowed for counties.

Opponents said

Senate Bill 29 would limit the ability of cities, counties, school districts, and other local governments to advocate on behalf of their communities. It is not an efficient use of taxpayer money to pay for certain local government employees, who have other needs and full-time jobs in their communities, to travel to the Texas Capitol to attend multiple committee hearings, visit legislative offices, and field requests from members.

The premise of the bill — that local government lobbyists advocate against the interests of taxpayers —
is incorrect. Local governments hold transparent open meetings to gain community input and are also subject to open records requests. Residents and taxpayers ultimately have the ability to set the legislative agenda, and local government lobbyists often protect the interests of residents against private lobbyists. 

This bill would remove local control and have a chilling effect on local engagement at the Legislature. If local governments could not lobby the Legislature, future legislation that constituted an unfunded mandate could further cost taxpayer money.

Senate Bill 29 also would leave cities, counties, and other local governments open to liability for any number of simple activities. The bill is not specific as to what is meant by “directly or indirectly influencing” legislation, which may lead to confusion and a large number of suits filed against local governments. Those actions would ultimately come at the expense of taxpayers.

Other critics said

While SB 29 is a necessary step to end the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, the bill should go further to better protect taxpayer interests. It should have a better enforcement mechanism, rather than making taxpayers pay to go to court and face lawyers paid for with public tax dollars. The bill would be more effective if violations were reported to the Office of the Attorney General and individuals who violated the bill had to pay with their own money.

Individuals and Interest Groups Which Publicly Stated Their Positions on Senate Bill 25

A long list of individuals and special interest groups made their positions known by testifying for, against, and on Senate Bill 25 when it went before the House Committee on State Affairs on Monday, May 20, 2019, according to the House Research Organization.

That list follows:

For — Adam Cahn, Cahnman’s Musings; Tamara Colbert, Paul Hodson, and Shelby Williams, Convention of States; Cheryl Johnson, Galveston County Tax Office; Ed Heimlich, Informed Citizens; Robin Lennon, Kingwood TEA Party, Inc.; Crystal Main, NE Tarrant Tea Party; Terry Holcomb and Summer Wise, Republican Party of Texas; Mark Dorazio, Republican Party of Texas State Republican Executive Committee; Mark Ramsey, Republican Party of Texas, SREC SD7; Terry Harper, RPT; Cary Cheshire, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility; Chuck DeVore, Texas Public Policy Foundation; Terri Hall, Texas TURF and Texans for Toll- Free Highways; Saurabh Sharma, Young Conservatives of Texas; and 21 individuals; (Registered, but did not testify: Justin Keener, Americans for Prosperity-Texas; Chris Hill, Collin County; Darrell Hale, Collin County Commissioner; Michael Cassidy, Convention of States; Peter Morales, COS; Stacy Mcmahan, East Texans for Liberty; Angela Smith, Fredericksburg Tea Party; James Lennon, Kingwood TEA Party; Mark Keough, Montgomery County; Fran Rhodes, NE Tarrant Tea Party; Richard Davey, NETTP; Gail Stanart, Republican Party of Texas; Mia McCord, Texas Conservative Coalition; Jimmy Gaines, Texas Landowners Council; Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association; Jonathan
Sáenz, Texas Values; Nicole Hudgens, Texas Values Action; Ellen Troxclair, TPPF; Roger Falk, Travis County Taxpayers Union; Walter West II (RET), VHSE and RPT; and 32 individuals)

Against — Don Allred, Oldham County; Tom Forbes, Professional Advocacy Association of Texas; Becky St. John, Texas Association of School Boards; 

(Registered, but did not testify: Brie Franco, City of Austin; TJ Patterson, City of Fort Worth; Sally Bakko, City of Galveston; Brad Neighbor, City of Garland; David Palmer, City of Irving; Scott Swigert, City of Mont Belvieu; Jeff Coyle, City of San Antonio; Amanda Gnaedinger, Common Cause Texas; Adam Haynes, Conference of Urban Counties; Leon Klement and John Klement, Cooke County; Jay Elliott, Falls County; Bill Kelly, City of Houston Mayor’s Office; Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen; Cyrus Reed, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter; Amy Beneski, Texas Association of School Administrators; John Love, Texas Municipal League; Tammy Embrey, The City of Corpus Christi; Julie Wheeler, Travis County Commissioners Court; Anna Alkire; Tracy Fisher) On — Ian Steusloff, Texas Ethics Commission

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For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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