Texans pay their members of Congress salaries totaling nearly $6 million each year to represent their interests — but for many cities and counties, that’s not enough. Over the last five years, local governments have shelled out $17 million more to hire an army of lobbyists in the nation’s capital, according to disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate and analyzed by The Texas Tribune.
Whether the goal is funding for education, airports, roads and fire and police departments or so-called “earmark” projects, cities are turning to the federal government for more money. While some watchdog groups argue the spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars, local officials say lobbying helps ensure that Texans get a fair share of what is rightfully theirs.
“Just like anyone else in the nation, we pay federal taxes, and we expect a return on those dollars,” says Larry Gilley, the city manager of Abilene, which paid $320,000 to lobbyists from January 2006 through October 2010, according to the disclosure forms. Despite the economic downturn and ensuing budget cuts at the local level, Gilley explains, lobby spending has continued out of necessity. “Even though cities are creatures of the state, we get very little funding from the state for anything we do,” he says, noting that lobbyists help cities like his stay in touch with lawmakers and federal agencies. “They are our people on the ground in Washington.”
In theory, of course, cities already have people on the ground: elected officials and their staffs. Leonard Martin, city manager of Carrollton, says lobbyists complement their work. Carrollton's congressman, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, was recently criticized by a nonprofit watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity, for opposing the federal stimulus plan and then writing a letter in support of transportation grants from the stimulus for his district. Sessions' letter wasn't the only piece of the puzzle, Martin says: Carrollton's lobbyists were also working to help secure the funds.
U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, who was likewise criticized by the Center for Public Integrity for opposing the stimulus bill but asking for stimulus funds, says he doesn’t oppose lobbying by cities. “The reality of the situation is that federal monies are currently available to cities who choose to utilize them," he said in an e-mail to the Tribune. "If they do, I hope they would use these funds in a financially responsible way that benefits taxpayers in Texas the most.”
City officials contend that congressmen like Sessions and Neugebauer don’t have time to focus on every one of the thousands of bills filed every year, which is why lobbyists are crucial. “I can’t imagine any large city not having any kind of representation,” Martin says. “Things happen too fast.”
Peggy Venable, the Texas director of the limited-government advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, rejects that rationale. “We elect our officials to represent us on a local, state and federal level, and they need to work together,” she says. “They should be able to follow legislation.”
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Big population centers are big lobby spenders, the forms reveal. Houston, the largest city in Texas, paid the most of any city: more than $1.7 million to several Washington-based lobbying firms since 2006. San Antonio, the second-largest city, spent the second-highest amount: $1.35 million. Dallas, third in size, forked over $1.2 million.
The city of Carrollton, which shelled out $1.16 million for lobbying, is the No. 4 spender over the last five years despite being No. 22 in population. But that number is inflated, Martin says, because Carrollton’s lobbyists also work at the state Capitol in Austin.
Houston's superlative spending on lobbyists doesn't tell the whole story, as it's supplemented in some ways by the amount paid out by Harris County. Among Texas counties, Harris ranks first in lobby spending, paying $940,000 over that same period of five years. Not all counties spend less than their largest cities: Spending by El Paso County ($640,000) surpassed the city of El Paso’s spending ($457,000).
Spending by the two local governments may seem redundant, says Cathy Sisk, director of the Harris County Office of Legislative Affairs, but the county’s lobbyists represent both Houston and the 1.7 million people who live in the county outside of the incorporated city of Houston. Sisk says that if local voters don’t like their city or county representatives spending money to lobby Washington, there’s a simple solution: Vote them out of office.
Who do you work for?
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In 1999, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued an opinion saying public entities are legally permitted to pay registered lobbyists in Washington. Now that he represents the state as its junior U.S. senator, his perspective is that lobbyists are unnecessary. "No Texan needs to hire a lobbyist to talk to me or my staff," he said in a statement. "Taxpayers across Texas should continue to hold their elected officials at the federal, state and local levels accountable for the spending decisions they make.”
Part of Cornyn’s 1999 opinion was based on the argument that city and county lobbyists work partly to counteract the massive lobbying influence of major industries and unions in Washington. Sisk agrees. “I think the public deserves the same representation of their interests in Washington that large corporations receive,” she says.
Even though lobbying by cities and counties is legal, Venable, of Americans for Prosperity, doesn’t buy Martin's and Sisk’s arguments: “I believe that most taxpayers, when they learn that some of those tax dollars are going to lobby — and often to lobby against what is in their best interests — are furious.”
John Hrncir, government relations director for the city of Austin, insists that federal lobbying is worth every dime: “We have gotten a lot of federal transportation dollars. We’ve gotten a lot of money to help wastewater projects. The airport was built essentially with federal dollars.”
“Lobbying — let’s face it — comes with a bad rap,” Martin says. “It always suggests that you’re buying people off and on. Our people don’t do that.”
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