Texas lawmakers making another attempt to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying

Advocates for banning taxpayer-funded lobbying are hoping this legislative session that the Republican-led legislature will ban the practice.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supports a ban, argues the practice uses taxpayer money against taxpayers and disenfranchises their First Amendment rights.

State Sen. Mays Middleton, R-Wallisville, introduced SB 175 to ban taxpayer lobbying this session after he filed bills to ban the practice as a state representative in the last two legislative sessions. SB 175 would amend Chapter 556 of government code to prohibit political subdivisions from using public funds for lobbying activities. It also would prohibit political subdivisions from paying nonprofit state associations or organizations that primarily represent political subdivisions or hire or contract with lobbyists, according to the bill language.

According to a 2019 poll conducted by TPPF, nearly 90% of Texans surveyed said they support the ban. Nearly 95% of Republican voters in the March 2020 primary election voted in favor of a ballot proposition supporting the ban, which is also a legislative priority of the Republican Party of Texas. And a University of Texas and Texas Tribune poll found that 69% of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support a ban.

Currently, state law prohibits state agencies from engaging in taxpayer-funded lobbying, but it doesn’t prohibit local governments from doing so. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, local governments spent nearly $75 million in 2021 to hire registered lobbyists to promote their agenda in the state legislature.

In 2019, Middleton filed HB 281, but House Calendars Committee Chairman Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, never scheduled it for a floor vote. Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, also filed SB 29 to ban the practice but House lawmakers gutted it to such an extent that its weakened version didn’t pass.

In 2021, Middleton and Hall filed similar bills again. This time, SB 10 was also drastically watered down and didn’t pass.

In 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted his opposition to the practice being used by the Democratic-controlled Austin City Council. He said, “Austin – don’t even try to defend taxpayer-funded lobbying. It is indefensible that you tax residents to get money that you use to hire lobbyists to support legislation to allow you to tax even more.”

A new report published by TPPF, “Breach of Faith: How Local Governments Are Using Your Tax Dollars Against You,” notes that lobbyists are generally hired to advocate for greater government spending and size, less transparency and expanded regulatory authority, and in the process disenfranchise residents’ First Amendment rights.

Unless the legislature bans the practice, the report's lead author, James Quintero, warns Texans, “local governments [use] your own money against you.”

The process has created a system in which “Texans may not fully exercise their First Amendment right to petition their policymakers because local governments are flooding the statehouse with contract lobbyists paid for with our tax dollars,” Quintero says. “These lobbyists interfere with the average person’s ability to get their issues resolved. Worse, they oftentimes argue against the interests of everyday people and for pro-government causes.”

“The right to petition is a constitutional right that ensures elected representatives hear from more than a select few supporters or special interests,” he adds. “It is intended to empower citizens, not the government.”

He also maintains that “governments do not have rights,” they have powers. “Only people have rights.”

Advocates for taxpayer-funded lobbying argue their efforts benefit taxpayers. The Texas Municipal League, for example, which represents 1,170 cities and 16,000 mayors, says its advocacy is important for “empowering Texas cities to serve its citizens.” Its legislative toolkit provides “tips for grassroots involvement,” how to write letters to elected officials and “testify at the capitol,” among other activities.

But groups like it and many others, Quintero said, are able to hire lobbyists “armed with public money” who can “wine-and-dine lawmakers in ways that the average Texan cannot. In addition, these lobbyists can also make campaign contributions and give aid of other sort, making them a powerful anti-taxpayer force.”

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