Why I'm against taxpayer-funded lobbying

Photo by John Jordan

As we approach one year from the end of my first legislative session after taking office, I continue to hear confusion about an office policy I maintained on not meeting with lobbyists who are advocating on behalf of a taxing entity.

I believe there is a distinct difference between a private company that uses its profits to hire a lobbyist and government entities that use taxpayer dollars to do the same. Let me explain my reasoning on why I will gladly meet with one but not the other.

The legitimate role of any lobbyist is to advocate on behalf of their client. I personally welcome private-industry or issue-based lobbyists because most legislators are "generalists" — that is, we must know a little about a wide breadth of topics — but many of the issues we are asked to grapple with during the short 140-day legislative session are complex and nuanced. Good lobbyists help us understand how proposed laws and regulations could impact their client's business or issue, the effects on their employees, potential unintended consequences, and so much more. In essence, these types of lobbyists are privately funded "specialists" who can provide tremendous resources and expertise to assist in the process. The role this type of lobbyist plays is greatly appreciated and largely misunderstood by the public.

Of course, even privately funded lobbyists do at times attempt to encourage members of the Legislature to pass bills that will stifle free and equal competition. This is called "protectionism," and I adamantly oppose these attempts. When I meet with such lobbyists, we have frank discussions in which I am quick to remind them I am a free-market conservative who will not allow government to be used as a weapon against industry competition.

However, taxing entities, such as schools, water districts, cities, counties, hospital districts, community colleges and many others are using tax dollars to hire lobbyists to descend upon the Capitol each session. In fact, according to the Texas Ethics Commission, taxing entities spent $29 million in 2015 on lobbying your state Legislature. I quickly found that too often these lobbyists come to the Capitol to advocate for legislation that is not in the best interest of local taxpayers.

Furthermore, the practice of hiring outside lobbyists to advocate against the interest of the taxpayers within a taxing entity shields the elected board members, or commissioners, from being directly associated with advocacy for those policies. This strikes me as terribly unrepresentative and hides from voters what their elected officials are truly pushing when the Legislature is in session.

In an attempt to correct the malpractice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, I filed Senate Bill 711 last session, which would have disallowed the practice of a political subdivision hiring an outside lobbyist and would have outlawed any membership association or organization of a political subdivision from either employing a lobbyist or contributing to political campaigns. To be clear: The bill would have limited only the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, not privately funded lobbying.

This idea of eliminating taxpayer-funded lobbying is not new, and I do not claim to be its originator. For example, from June 2005 to January 2007, residents of Williamson County sued their county, stating it violated the law that a county could not use general revenue funds to join an association that lobbies the Legislature. The citizens won that lawsuit.

My proposed legislation went even further, addressing all political subdivisions and their associations. This reform is still sorely needed, and I plan to reintroduce the bill in 2017. I look forward to working with any interested parties to craft sensible language, and I implore my fellow legislators to stand with me and adopt similar office policies.

I have no problem meeting with superintendents, city council members, special purpose district board members and the like to talk about their thoughts or needs. But I stand firmly against the use of taxpayer dollars to hire third-party advocates who may be pursuing policies that directly conflict with the interests of the very taxpayers footing their bill. To me, this isn't complicated — it's just good government.

Konni Burton

State senator, R-Colleyville