Editorial: Texas Governor Abbott must call special session on overarching issue of banning taxpayer funded lobbying

Eric Yollick, The Golden Hammer

Grassroots conservative activists are on edge across the State of Texas. They’re entirely justified in those feelings.

The 86th Texas Legislature failed to accomplish some major priorities, such as lowering government spending, passing robust statewide property tax reform, eliminating the complexity of school finance and state intervention into public schools, passing Constitutional Carry, protecting the unborn, and a host of other major legislative goals. That’s not to say that there weren’t some major accomplishments as well, especially in the post-Straus Speakership of Dennis Bonnen, the now-embattled Speaker of the House who actually allowed legislation to progress far more readily than former Speaker Joe Straus ever permitted.

Almost every failure to achieve priorities, however, sprang from the biggest failure of all on an issue which, strangely, unites both conservative Republicans and democrats: a ban on taxpayer funded lobbying.

In many parts of Texas, taxpayers have observed one local government entity hiring lobbyists for particular legislation, while another local government entity has hired another lobbyist (and sometimes, amazingly, the same lobbyist (!!!)) to lobby against the same legislation. Taxpayers are running out of money to support such follies.

When the Texas Senate Committee on Property Tax held a public hearing on property tax reform, hundreds of private citizens attended the hearing on their own dime to testify in favor of property tax relief during the 2019 Session, while dozens of paid lobbyists testified against property tax relief and received their payments and all expenses incurred from governmental entities who are supposed to represent those same private citizens. In fact, only one government official from across Texas came to the Texas Legislature to testify for the citizen interests on the issue of property tax reform as opposed to the interest of more government spending.

The Texas House has developed the reputation that it’s the place where legislation goes to die. The reason it has correctly garnered that reputation is that three major lobbying groups have a long-established hold on House members and House committees: the Texas Municipal League (TML), the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), and the Texas Association of Counties (TAC).

A brief, but important aside

Haven’t you witnessed the process of electing a good person to an office, winning their election for them, attending their taking the oath of office, and then seeing them transmogrify into “one of them” as soon as they take office? It’s so common to see good and sincere candidates become corrupted politicians almost immediately.

What actually happens? Well, if you’ve ever served in an elected office, you’d see what happens. A good lady came for years to Board meetings and gave scathing citizen comments against government spending. One of the Board members recruited her to run. She won, took the oath of office, and immediately started to vote for increased spending every single time! It was frightening to witness.

One aspect of this phenomenon is that large government entities have large numbers of employees who can take the new Board member in their arm as they put their arm around her shoulder and “explain some sense” to her. For cities and municipalities, TML puts its long welcoming and soft arm around the shoulder of new mayors and council members to teach them the “municipal outlook.” TAC and TASB do the same for new county officials and school board members.

These practices need to come to a stop. With the pesky First Amendment, the only legal way to do that is to take away the money.

What happened in the 86th Legislature

Only three states in the United States have banned taxpayer funded lobbying per the National Conference of State Legislatures which issued an updated report on August 13, 2019.

The Republican Party at its biennial State Convention in June, 2018, adopted the following Legislative Priority: “Ban political subdivisions with taxing authority from hiring lobbyists, from paying dues to an association of similarly-situated entities which lobbies, and from automatically deducting union dues.”

When the 86th Texas Legislature opened on January 8, 2019, this newspaper interviewed a number of legislators and staff members all of whom predicted the ban on taxpayer funded lobbying didn’t have a chance.

Nevertheless, the legislation came to have a life of its own. Even members of the Texas Legislature began to realize the true reason reform legislation consistently dies in the Texas House is because of the enormous influence of TML, TAC, and TASB over many House members, committee chairmen, and committees.

Despite that, the very persuasive Senator Bob Hall, Republican of Edgewood, managed to convince a majority of his colleagues to adopt his Senate Bill 29, which passed on a straight Party line vote, 18 to 13, with the exception of Republican Kel Seliger of Amarillo who was angrily the only member of the GOP to vote against the Senate Bill, on April 17, 2019.

When SB 29 moved over to the House, however, the vultures swarmed. Freshman Representative Mayes Middleton, Republican of Wallisville, sponsored Senator Hall’s bill in the House. The bill faced difficult prospects all the way through House proceedings and eventually died on the House Floor by a 58 to 85 vote in which 25 Republicans voted with 60 of the 68 democrats to kill the important measure on May 21, 2019.

The Republicans who voted against the taxpayer funded lobbying ban on May 21 were Allison, Anderson, Ashby, Bailes, Bell, K., Button, Clardy, Darby, Flynn, Hunter, Kacal, King, K., Kuempel, Lambert, Larson, Miller, Paddie, Parker, Price, Raney, Smithee, Stephenson, Stucky, VanDeaver, and Zerwas.

Representative Middleton said, “While I am disappointed that a majority of my colleagues in the Texas House refused to stand with Texas taxpayers and the 91% of Texans surveyed who support a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, their failure to act has only ensured that I will redouble my efforts to ban the corrupt practice of our tax dollars being used in Austin to lobby for higher taxes in our state. I am adamant that Texans have the tools to hold state and local officials accountable on this issue and plan to bring this bill forward again next session.”

Don’t wait!

Representative Middleton uttered wise and encouraging words, except for one thing he said. We cannot wait to ban taxpayer funded lobbying until the 87th Texas Legislature, which will begin in January, 2021. It’s critical that we ban taxpayer funded lobbying before the next legislative session. We need to remove TML, TAC, and TASB from the political equation before the next legislative session when we’ll have to fight them at every turn again.

An effort to ban taxpayer funded lobbying in a special legislative session would unite the edgy grassroots conservatives once more. Those grassroots conservatives are essential to Republicans carrying Texas and to President Donald Trump’s re-election. We can’t afford to allow them to remain edgy. Governor Greg Abbott needs to show that he stands with the conservative activists who are the backbone of the Republican Party of Texas.

Strangely, democrat political activists support the ban, so it’s not a strictly partisan issue. It’s a Texas issue, the kind with which Governor Abbott does and should feel the most comfortable.

The strategic fear about a legislative session involving all of the failed Legislative Priorities, especially an abortion ban and Constitutional Carry, is that a failure on those issues might make the grassroots conservative activists even unhappier with the Republican Party, when, in truth, we need those activists to lead the 2020 campaign and we certainly don’t want them to sit out from the election.

An attempt to ban taxpayer funded lobbying has a reasonable chance of prevailing, if it is the only purpose of the Governor’s call, according to several legislators from both parties who have discussed this issue with The Golden Hammer but have requested anonymity for the time being. There are at least four House democrats who would vote for a total ban on taxpayer funded lobbying in a special session, even though they voted against the watered down version of SB 29 on the House Floor on May 21.

Even if the legislation were to fail, however, because democrats vote against it along with a few unreliable House Republicans, the grassroots need a reminder of the loyalty of their Republican representatives to their most precious interests. In reality, however, there’s a serious chance the ban would pass and electrify the grassroots behind the entire Republican slate (except for the Republicans who vote against it and should get “primaried” out of office anyway).

 

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