The Houston Courant
By: State Representative Briscoe Cain
February 18, 2020
It happens every odd-numbered year, legislators descend on Austin. We all come fresh from winning our respective elections. We are elected by our constituents – voters – and we come to town with their issues and concerns in mind.
This last legislative session, the Texas Legislature was ready to move on property tax reform. We were going to take action after hearing for years from Texans that, “Property taxes are too high. Property taxes are pricing out Texans of the homes they bought.”
Senate Bill 2, which the legislature passed, requires many local taxing units – cities and counties – to get voter approval if they want to increase their property tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent. A poll found that 72 percent of Texans “support requiring local governments to ask voters before raising property tax revenues more than set amount.”
With support from our constituents, why was this taxpayer-friendly legislation not passed years ago? One of the reasons is there is a group that gets paid to advocate against our constituents: taxpayer-funded lobbyists.
Taxpayer-funded lobbyists are professional lobbyists who are contracted by, and get their marching orders from, local officials. And it is a lucrative business – an estimated $41 million annually is spent by local governments to lobby state government. This $41 million is the same tax dollars local governments receive from the rising property taxes that our constituents are concerned about.
Texas counties, cities, and school districts should not be allowed to use tax dollars to hire professional lobbyists to advocate for tax increases. Like property tax reform, Texas voters agree. 91 percent of Texas voters oppose using their tax dollars to fund lobbyists, with 80 percent saying, they strongly oppose the practice.
This last legislative session, the Texas Legislature got closer than it ever has to banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. Senate Bill 29 was a simple reform measure that prohibited any political subdivision from using taxpayer funds to pay for contract lobbyists. Senate Bill 29 passed the Texas Senate, but it failed to pass the Texas House of Representatives by 18 votes. When it died, taxpayer-funded lobbyists, who had congregated in the gallery, cheered and applauded. They knew that, for another two years, their lucrative contracts with our counties and cities are safe. That means for the next two years, professional lobbyists will advocate against the very taxpayers that are paying the lobbyist’s bills.
Taxpayer-funded lobbyists also opposed the constitutional ban on a state income tax. They opposed it because their local government clients never want to close the door on a potential source of revenue. Luckily, this time, the Texas Legislature disagreed with them. In November of 2019, over 74 percent of Texas voters passed a constitutional amendment banning a state income tax.
As a state legislator, I always enjoy when my constituents stop by my office when visiting their Texas State Capitol. Many come to Austin during the legislative session to testify in front of a committee about a bill that is important to them. What I hate to think about is that same constituent having to take off of work, pay to travel to Austin, and testify in front of committee; only to have to sit there and listen to a lobbyist, a lobbyist who is paid for directly with their tax money, testify against the very position they just advocated for.
A taxpayer-funded lobbying ban does not stop our city council members, mayors, county commissioners, and county judges from themselves advocating in front of the Texas Legislature. If a local official wants to oppose property tax reform, let them publicly go on record and not hide behind a contract with a lobbyist.
Currently, a Texan is forced to check the Texas Ethics Commission website for lobbying registrations, find what lobbyist their city or county has hired, and then search each piece of legislation for what position that lobbyist has taken in a committee hearing. It’s a game of “connect the dots” that still provides cover for the local official when they run for re-election and promise that they have the best interests of the taxpayer in mind. Representative Mayes Middleton added an amendment to Senate Bill 65 to shine light on the lobbying records of school districts, cities, and counties.
Senate Bill 65 requires that these contracts be posted on the government entity’s website. Unfortunately, not many of our cities, counties, or school districts are in compliance. I also want to note that none of these records would include the lobbying work that goes on away from committee hearings and the public record.
The time is now for the Texas Legislature to empower the taxpayer in front of their state and local government. During the 87th Texas Legislature, I know many of my colleagues and I will be focused on passing a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying. I only hope that our fellow legislators are ready to start listening to their constituents and pass this important piece of legislation.