02/27/19

The Battle over Tax-Funded Lobbying: What You Need to Know

When lawmakers convene in Austin, the biggest financial influence on them shifts from campaign contributions to lobbying. And taxpayers are footing the bill for a lot of it.

Background:

During the Texas legislative session, state law prohibits campaign contributions to legislators. This law is designed to prevent donors and PACs from currying favor with legislators while they are casting votes. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers are free from potential financial persuasion. Once the session begins, lobbying becomes the primary form of influence. Although lobbyists get their title from standing in the lobby — usually of the House or Senate — while waiting to talk to lawmakers, their favorite form of persuasion is wining and dining politicians, even buying them tickets to sporting events and other entertainment.

Under Texas law, lobbyists are only required to file detailed reports (names of lawmakers and specifics on spending) when those costs exceed 60 percent of the lawmaker’s per diem (recently raised to $221). In other words, a lobbyist can spend up to $132.60 on a lawmaker each day without having to report it. If a lobbyist takes four legislators to dinner or a game, he or she can spend more than $530 without having to file a report. If two lobbyists happen to be there, they can spend more than $1000 on those legislators without voters ever knowing.

Happening Now:

This week a particular kind of lobbyist is in the news — the lobbyist who is paid with tax dollars. A tax-funded lobbyist is typically hired by a city, county, school district, or other local government agency to lobby legislators. A conflict of interest can arise because these lobbyists — whose jobs are funded with tax dollars — almost always lobby for increasing spending and taxes.

Those in favor of tax-funded lobbying argue these paid lobbyists are needed to represent the interests of local government entities and school districts.

Those against the practice argue that taxpayers are effectively forced to pay people to advocate against their financial interests. They also assert that local government entities don’t need paid lobbyists because their interests can be adequately represented by private citizens. If opponents are successful, tax-funded lobbyists may soon find themselves out of a job.

The battle over the future of tax-funded lobbying began today. Legislators heard testimony this morning in the State Affairs Committee on freshman House Rep. Mayes Middleton’s bill (HB 281) to end tax-funded lobbying.

Lobbying in Texas, By the Numbers*

Number

Percentage

Lobbyists with tax-funded or primarily tax-funded clients**579

32%
Lobbyists with private clients121968%
Total active lobbyists1798

100%

Total spent on lobbyists with all or primarily tax-funded clients$77,725,000

20%

Total spent on lobbyists with privately-funded clients$304,440,000

80%

Total spent on lobbying$382,165,000 100%

Key Takeaways:

  1. During the last legislative session, more money was potentially spent on lobbyists trying to influence lawmakers than all the campaign contributions by individual donors and PACs combined.
  2. As many as 579 lobbyists (those with at least some tax-funded clients) have reason to object to this bill.
  3. More than $77 million of taxpayer money was potentially spent on lobbyists to influence Texas politicians in the 2017 Legislative Session.


On the other side of the battle, pro-taxpayer groups, put out the call for concerned citizens to show up at the Capitol to testify at this morning’s hearing. Time will tell if HB 281 will prevail or if tax-funded lobbyists can torpedo the bill that would put them out of work.

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*These numbers, which are based on reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, reflect lobbying activity from the 2017 Legislative Session. The numbers are approximate because lobbyists are only required to report their earnings in numerical ranges.

**These clients appear to receive their funding exclusively or almost exclusively from taxpayer money.

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