Senator Bettencourt Takes Different Approach on Lobbyists Hired by Local Governments

Originally published in the Quorum Report*
By: Kimberly Reeves

*Reprinted here with permission from the Quorum Report

Sen. Bettencourt takes different approach on lobbyists hired by local governments

Unlike the House Freedom Caucus-supported “ban on taxpayer funded lobbyists,” Bettencourt says he is focused on transparency through additional reporting requirements

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, offered up his kinder, gentler version of “taxpayer-funded lobbying” legislation this week – increased transparency rather than an outright ban – during a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing that also covered lawmaker ethics, human trafficking and an actuarial fix to the teacher’s pension fund.

Freshman Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, filed the perennial ban of “taxpayer-funded lobbyists,” House Bill 281, that amended a section of code that applied to county representation.

The language is broadened to include all local jurisdictions, including mobility authorities and transit systems.

The bill has been stalled in House State Affairs since the end of February.

Sen. Bettencourt’s bill, Senate Bill 702, focuses on transparency by boosting reporting requirements. Bettencourt noted challenges with lobbying reports: It is the lobbyist who reports his or her own interests, and clients, to the state. Compensation reports by lobbyists to the Texas Ethics Commission lack specificity. And local governments can hide lobbying costs by designating lobbyists as “consultants” or “legal counsel.”

“It’s almost impossible for the public to determine what the expenditures are,” Bettencourt told the committee. “So, I want to go over the four major points of SB 702.”

Bettencourt’s concerns would appear to be a challenge to lobbying in Texas, writ large, but Bettencourt uses a section of local government code to direct all the additional transparency to local jurisdictions using taxpayer-funded lobbying; specifically:

– Lobbyist expenditures by a political subdivision must be specifically authorized by a vote of the political subdivision in a posted local meeting, by a majority vote;

– Public disclosure of the political subdivision’s vote, on the political subdivision’s website, with a reference to the firm or the lobbyist itself;

– Require the political subdivision to report to the Texas Ethics Commission, on behalf of itself, as to the names and compensation of hired lobbyists;

– Include the payment of dues to third-party organizations in the reporting to the Texas Ethics Commission.

“This legislation will greatly increase the information citizens possess about lobbying efforts of their local government because the public has a right to know,” Bettencourt told the committee. “That’s really why we’re here. The bill applies to just about every subdivision we could think of because it serves one fundamental fact: The citizen has a right to be informed to the use of their taxpayer dollars, and I think SB 702 is a great step forward for that.”

Bettencourt had a friendly audience.

Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, couldn agree with Bettencourt that a lot of lobbyists showed up on behalf of local government; and almost none of them were in favor of the revenue cap.

“All the citizens that came, that weren’t either employees or lobbyists, all testified for the bill,” Bettencourt said. “But the folks who were paid, testified against.”

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, praised the bill, saying the state has been way behind on the disclosures of how local tax dollars are spent. He said he was fully supportive.

Larger jurisdictions typically do hire in-house staff to handle intergovernmental relations, either on the state or federal level, whether it’s the City of Austin or the Lower Colorado River Authority. This bill would appear to cover reporting such expenditures to the state.

The vote to hire additional outside lobbyists typically is a budget decision, one posted for a public vote. Most, if not all, are posted as part of lengthy meeting agendas. Posting votes on a jurisdiction’s website might, or might not, be an effective way to inform voters.

Additional reporting of “taxpayer-funded lobbying” could be useful to understand the scope and cost of local jurisdictions spending on lobbying, but it doesn’t address the concerns Bettencourt raised in his comments to the committee: Bettencourt wants to end taxpayer-funded lobbying hidden under the label of “consultant” or “legal counsel.” He wants taxpayers to be aware of specific anti-taxpayer positions taken by local government. And he wants those anti-taxpayer positions easily accessible to the taxpayer.

The Conference of Urban Counties opposed the bill, trying to note the need to distinguish between lobbyists and city employees who might show up to testify on behalf of a bill. Adam Haynes of CUC noted there was a difference between a registered lobbyist who might testify on a bill versus a city or county employee who might show up to support legislation.

Haynes said he would be testifying for the bill if that distinction was made.

Bettencourt, however, could not allow Haynes’ comments to stand unchallenged, especially when it came to Haynes’ assertion that CUC was working with Bettencourt’s office.

“I’m sorry to contradict the witness, but we’re not working together,” Bettencourt said.

“We literally had a piece of paper handed to us. We have not accepted the change. I would respectfully request the committee vote the bill out at this time,” Bettencourt said. “I’ll be happy to look at it in the future.”

Haynes later sent a letter to the committee apologizing “if my testimony caused any confusion.”

The committee voted out the bill 7 to 0 on Wednesday.