San Jacinto River Authority, Enemy of the People: Part 4 of 5, Taxpayer-Funded lobbying to fight pro-citizen reforms

San Jacinto River Authority, Enemy of the People: Part 4 of 5, Taxpayer-Funded lobbying to fight pro-citizen reforms

Image: Nothing defeats government reform more effectively than taxpayer-funded lobbying. The San Jacinto River Authority, the enemy of the people, has engaged in taxpayer-funded lobbying for a long, long time.

The Golden Hammer Staff Reports

Conroe and Austin, November 17 – During the 87th Texas Legislature, which commences on January 12, 2021, the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) will face the legislative “sunset” process, a legislative review during which state agencies must justify their existence and the mode of operation. SJRA has, as a result, become the subject of many citizen reform efforts. Citizen leaders, such as water expert and activist Webb Melder, the former Mayor of Conroe, and Harry Hardman, the current President of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, are seeking major reforms in SJRA’s method of conducting its business.

In the past 10 years, SJRA has flooded thousands of Texas families and businesses during Tropical Storm Harvey, hidden major aspects of its operations from the public, and become a major monopolistic source of water sales seeking to destroy the economic viability of competing groundwater producers and to force municipalities and utility companies to pay it enormous sums of money whether they receive water from the river authority or not. SJRA is the subject of a major antitrust lawsuit pending in a United States District Court. Please see https://thegoldenhammer.net/san-jacinto-river-authority-enemy-of-the-people-part-3-of-5-efforts-to-monopolize-retail-water-sales-driving-up-residential-water-bills/ At the same time, SJRA is now a defendant in dozens of lawsuits over its abject failure to provide flood control and, during the Harvey storm, over its role in causing flooding. Please see https://thegoldenhammer.net/san-jacinto-river-authority-enemy-of-the-people-part-1-of-5-flooding-and-lawsuits/

The primary engine, which has allowed SJRA to survive its forcefully terrible behavior, happens to be one of the most odious evils in all of Texas politics: taxpayer-funded lobbying. SJRA has paid hundreds of thousands of public dollars to a powerful lobbying firm, HillCo Partners, and one of its partners, Jay Howard, who has represented SJRA as a lobbying since 1998. Since January 1, 2018, SJRA has spent $185,116.35, as documents SJRA provided to The Golden Hammer in a public information request have confirmed. (Please see spreadsheet at end of this article.)

One of HillCo’s missions, as SJRA’s paid lobbyist, was to exempt SJRA from the entire “sunset” process. State Senator Brian Birdwell, Republican of Waco, however, made sure that river authorities were subject to the “sunset” process. Despite HillCo’s lobbying largesse, that’s a fight they lost.

Nothing in SJRA’s enabling legislation would allow the state agency to devote public resources to lobbying to protect commercial interests or to protect anything for that matter. Its 1937 enabling act actually required SJRA to protect the soil from erosion, to provide flood control, and to aid and encourage reforestation, as its three primary duties, none of which the agency performed until public anger over the Tropical Storm Harvey flooding occurred, after SJRA flooded thousands of southeast Texas homes in August and September, 2017.

Enabling legislation giving SJRA responsibility for flood control in the entire San Jacinto River Basin. Source: San Jacinto River Authority.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying to protect its power, its business interests, and the massive flow of money SJRA and its employees have enjoyed has become a major purpose of SJRA itself. In August, 1998, then-General Manager Jim Adams, the father of one of SJRA’s current biggest vendors, Bobby Jack Adams, the engineer who manages Halff Associates’ Conroe office, entered into a lucrative lobbying contract with Jay Howard, who, at the time, was a young lobbyist working as an Associate for HillCo Partners. Howard’s father was a legislator and his mother was a political appointee in the presidential administration of Bill Clinton, so the young Mr. Howard has a strong pedigree.

The first page of HillCo’s engagement letter with SJRA, from August 10, 1998, which appears directly below, reveals SJRA’s involvement in activities which reach far afield from its statutory duties, including “developing a political strategy,” “monitoring of legislation introduced and administrative rules proposed which are identified by SJRA as having a potential impact on its interests,” and communicating SJRA’s “position on legislation and administrative actions” with “members of the Legislative and Executive branches of state government.”

The first page of SJRA’s initial contract with HillCo Partners in 1998. The lobbyist-client relationship has continued ever since.

Clearly, SJRA’s “interests” reach far away from its statutory purposes of preventing soil erosion, providing flood control, and encouraging reforestation. SJRA has become a big business operation under the guise of a government agency.

With clients, such as SJRA, HillCo Partners has become a major player in Texas lobbying. Jay Howard, the principal at HillCo Partners who manages the SJRA account, is now a partner in the firm and draws in over $2 million per year in revenue from clients for whom he personally provides services.

HillCo Partners’ Jay Howard.

Capitol Inside‘s Lobbyist Hall of Fame put Howard at as the #10 lobbyist in Texas in 2019. Here’s their description of him: “Jay Howard, HillCo Partners – HillCo’s Jay Howard has the pedigree as a product of family with a father who served in the state House and Senate as a conservative East Texas Democrat and a mother who Bill Clinton appointed to be the Federal Insurance Administrator at FEMA during his stint in the White House. Howard the lobbyist had been on a steady climb in the power rankings before making his appearance this year for the first time on the list of the 10 top hired guns at the statehouse in Austin. While HillCo and the group that Kelley leads at the Blackridge firm have made it a point to have the strongest possible relations on both sides of the aisle, Howard commands the kind of respect and admiration that trascends partisan politics as a truly consummate professional and gentleman.”

 

HillCo definitely knows how to wine and dine the Board members of its clients to keep them as clients of the lobbying firm.

Howard knows how to keep his clients. As the letter directly above, dated December 16, 2014, reveals, Howard wines and dines his clients in addition to ensuring that citizens can’t have too much influence over matters with which SJRA has concerns.

In 2020 and 2018, the Republican Party of Texas has set as one of its major legislative priorities to “BAN TAXPAYER-FUNDED LOBBYING.” Specifically, the Party wants to “abolish all forms of taxpayer-funded lobbying.”

The Republican Party’s Platform also contains a Plank, which states, “Tax-Funded Lobbying: We oppose using tax dollars to hire lobbyists or pay dues to associations
that lobby the Legislature.”

As citizens lobby for reform of the SJRA during the 87th Legislative Session, they’ll face a formidable, and highly-paid, foe in HillCo Partners, which SJRA pays with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds specifically to use against the public interest.

 

Checks paid to HillCo Partners since January 1, 2018. Source: San Jacinto River Authority. The checks total $185,116.35.

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