Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has set an ambitious agenda for his first legislative session, including cutting business and property taxes, spending more money on transportation and furthering reforms to public education.
There to guide him will be a newly appointed — and virtually unprecedented — citizen advisory council made up of top business and industry leaders that Patrick will tap for new ideas and input on legislative proposals.
Along with some of the state’s most active political donors, the committee includes some of its most powerful private sector interests, groups that already heavily lobby the Legislature and rake in millions in state contracts, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of Texas Ethics Commission and comptroller’s office records.
Companies directly connected to people appointed by Patrick to his council spent at least $1.5 million lobbying during the 2013 legislative session, according to Ethics Commission records, which provide the amount of contracts for individual lobbyists in ranges only. As of the first week of 2015, they have reported between $990,000 and $1.8 million in combined lobby contracts for the upcoming legislative session.
Patrick said his goal is to bring the private sector’s “best and brightest” formally into the legislative process where — despite research generated by the state and outside think tanks — he said business and industry leaders currently lack opportunities to offer their insight.
“We need to have these people and their expertise involved in the discussion of what we’re doing because they’re in the trenches every day," he said as he announced the initiative to reporters last week.
He said that they would play a “vital role” in advising both the House and Senate as the legislative session progressed.
Though a relatively common practice for Texas governors, including Rick Perry, citizen advisory committees in the Legislature have typically been confined to a single topic, such as school finance reform or a specific tax incentive program. Patrick’s 55-member commission — known as the Lieutenant Governor's Boards of Private Citizens — will have six separate panels covering water, transportation, tax policy, energy, economic development and economic forecasting.
Each board will meet on its own schedule, he said, and their recommendations will not be made public.
Giving an official stamp of approval to the policy recommendations of such a group only heightens the influence they already wield behind the scenes, said Craig McDonald, the director of the liberal money-in-politics group Texans for Public Justice.
“They are well represented by lobbyists, they already get a lot of government business, they already have access anytime they want," he said. “Maybe they are the most successful at accumulating capital and power and clout in Texas, but that doesn’t mean they are the best at determining what the best policy should be.”
Landry’s Inc., the restaurant empire founded by Houston entrepreneur Tilman Fertitta, will spend an estimated minimum of $155,000 on lobbyists in 2015. Fertitta, who serves on the economic forecast board, owns a number of restaurant chains under the Landry’s umbrella, including Rainforest Cafe, Morton’s The Steakhouse and McCormick & Schmick’s, along with the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.
NewQuest Properties, the company owned by retail developer Steve Alvis of Houston, who sits on the transportation board, will pay at least $50,000 in lobbying fees in 2015.
Ryan LLC, the corporate tax firm of Brint Ryan, the Dallas businessman who chairs Patrick’s tax advisory board, will pay at least $275,000 for lobbyists to represent its interests this session. Its team of seven lobbyists includes Ryan himself.
For Ryan, the involvement with state government goes beyond just lobbying.
The Dallas-based tax firm he founded and where he currently serves as chief executive advises companies on how to negotiate the best tax deals with the state. The firm has represented clients receiving nearly 60 percent of all incentives approved by the state’s Enterprise Zone Program, and many others that have received subsidies from other incentive programs, according to The Dallas Morning News.
When reached via email with questions about how he would balance the interests of his firm with his duties on the advisory board, Ryan said he considered himself a Texan first and a business owner second.
“I am strongly supporting proposals that will harm Ryan LLC (in the short run and the long run) but that I believe will be good for Texas. I’ve advised my partners of this and they support me,” he wrote. “If doing what’s right costs us some money, so be it.”
Other board members do more direct business with the state, in some cases holding multiyear contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Among the state contracts held by companies connected to board members, according to data from the Texas comptroller’s office:
- Istation: The educational technology company founded by workforce development advisory board member Dick Collins holds a $32.3 million contract with the state to provide remedial support to school districts through August 2015, making it the Texas Education Agency’s second largest payee after Pearson, the firm that holds the state’s standardized testing contract.
- Hunter Industries: The construction company owned and operated by transportation board member John Weisman of New Braunfels has more than $831 million in contracts with the Texas Department of Transportation for a number of projects including maintaining and repairing roads through 2016.
- Jacobs Engineering: For its design services, the firm where transportation board member Pamela Bailey-Campbell is a vice president has about $9.4 million in contracts with the University of Texas System and more than $225 million in various contracts with the Department of Transportation for work to be completed as late as 2020.
Roy Bailey, the Dallas insurance executive who helped Patrick assemble the council and now serves as its chairman, said he had "zero concern" about possible conflicts because of business dealings with the state. He said the boards were "very diversified in terms of knowledge and expertise" — and in some cases even made up of members with competing interests.
"This is not anyone’s individual business orientations or agenda. It’s asking people to give him their most creative best ideas, and irrespective of politics or how it affects their business," he said. "The lieutenant governor is certainly sophisticated enough, experienced enough, smart enough, to filter out any bias he may see in a report or recommendation — if he sees something — and judge it himself on its merits."
Disclosure: Woody Hunt is the co-founder of the Hunt Family Foundation, which is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and Pearson are corporate sponsors of the Tribune. A complete list of donors and sponsors can be found here.