State lawmakers have enjoyed their share of sponsored travel in recent years — just like their federal counterparts.
Since 2005, Texas lobbyists have spent more than $500,000 on transportation and lodging for state officials, including members of the Legislature, flying them around the continent for events.
Groups such as the Associated General Contractors of Texas and the Texas Council of Engineering Companies, for example, sent lawmakers to hotels — some of them quite ritzy — for conferences and seminars.
In recent years the AGC, for example, has flown lawmakers to annual conferences in Lake Tahoe, Nevada; Napa, California; and Alberta, Canada. The groups say the trips are both informative and beneficial.
“We’re not in the business of entertaining governmental officials,” said Thomas Johnson, executive vice president of the AGC, which represents highway contractors.
Johnson said the events "keep our members informed about regulatory changes and legislative changes.”
Opponents of lobby-funded travel argue that the current system is unethical — no matter its perceived benefits.
“Any time an elected representative receives a thing of value, that's going to be looked at askance by the public. That can include gifts, travel, money,” said Andy Wilson at Public Citizen Texas. “When they have them sequestered at their travel location, they're given unfettered access and 100 percent of that person's time.”
Some groups contend that’s just the point.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation spent $12,000 in 2007 on transportation and lodging, largely on an overnight seminar at the Hyatt Lost Pines, a 405-acre ranch-style resort near Bastrop. The goal was to help legislative and executive agency staffers to learn about the complexities inherent in legislation.
“They see a problem, they write legislation to try to deal with the problem, but because they don't understand how economic incentives work, how human behavior works in those particular areas, the results of that legislation are considerably different from what they intend,” said David Guenthner, a spokesman for TPPF.
While state law generally prohibits lobbyists from paying for officials’ transportation directly, the groups say what they do is appropriate because officials provide an educational service to members.
“I could have the chairman of the committee that affects the bill and invite him to come to a management conference to speak," Johnson said. "If I hired an attorney or invited an attorney to speak on those same bills — same subject — I'd have to pay him $300 or $400 an hour. It doesn't take a mental giant to see what's more effective: someone to speak who wrote the legislation, or a lawyer who might not be as knowledgeable that has to be paid?”