Galveston’s new state representative has proposed taking away local governments’ ability to hire lobbyists to argue on their behalf in Austin. The legislation has long been supported by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that has nevertheless failed to pass through the legislature in recent years.
State representative-elect Mayes Middleton, a Republican from Chambers County, on Wednesday filed a bill that would ban public entities — including cities and counties — from hiring lobbyists.
“We must act to ensure tax dollars are spent responsibly and not placed into the hands of big government Austin lobbyists,” Middleton said.
If passed, the law would change how local cities handle lobbying the legislature. Local entities, including the city of Galveston, Galveston County and the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, have hired private lobbyists in recent years to advocate on their behalf in Austin and Washington D.C.
The city of Galveston this year entered into an $85,000 contract with Warner Seale, an Austin-based lobbying firm, using city sales tax money, a spokeswoman said Thursday. Galveston County has hired The Wilbanks Consulting Group, an Austin company, and budgeted $110,000 for lobbying efforts in the capital, a spokesman said.
Middleton argued that government-hired lobbyists work against taxpayer interests, specifically pointing to the failure of legislation proposing a tax cap during the 2017 legislature as a “real cost” suffered by taxpayers.
Taxpayer-funded lobbyists are “without a doubt,” the biggest opponents to tax reform, Middleton said.
“They are lined up in the committees to testify against property tax cuts,” Middleton said.
Local governments, including the city of Galveston, did oppose the tax caps in 2017, and continue to oppose similar legislation this year. In 2017, local governments also objected when Abbott proposed removing local rules on things like plastic bag bans, ride-sharing restrictions, short-term rentals and tree ordinances.
Abbott has long decried public entities using tax dollars to hire lobbyists. He campaigned on the issue when he ran for governor in 2013, and has declared ethics reform an emergency item that must be addressed in the past two legislative sessions.
Using county funds to hire a lobbyist was defensible, at least for now, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said.
Before hiring a professional lobbyist, the county did not get “a single thing” from its legislative agenda completed, Henry said.
“I’m not sure how we are expected to compete with people that do hire a lobbyist,” Henry said.
The county’s foray into hiring private groups might not be permanent, however. The only real accomplishment Henry could point to was a 2015 bill that allowed the county to regulate local game rooms. If private lobbying isn’t effective during the coming session, Henry might reconsider his stance, he said.
He expected the county’s lobbyists to track daily happenings in Austin, keeping the county apprised of the progress of legislation the county is interested in and to set up meetings with legislators.
Hiring a company in Austin ultimately is cheaper and more effective than hiring a permanent employee do the same tasks, Henry said.
Middleton’s bill would not prevent governments from hiring an employee to argue on behalf of the city’s interest.
Galveston in 2016 hired its first in-house legislative coordinator, who handles some of the city’s lobbying efforts, but most other entities don’t have an employee dedicated to legislative issues.
The bill would allow local government employees to continue to attempt to influence legislation, as long as those people don’t meet the state’s criteria to register as a lobbyist.
The bill is the first one filed by Middleton, who was elected to represent parts of Galveston County and Chambers County in November. However, it isn’t the first time the legislation has been filed in Austin. During the 2017 legislative session, former state Sen. Konni Burton, a Republican from Colleyville, filed a bill that was almost identical to Middleton’s.
The bill was advanced to the Senate’s State Affairs Committee, but never received a public hearing.
Similar bills filed in the 2015 legislative session also failed.
Middleton will be sworn in as a state representative on Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session.
The bill is House Bill 281.