Local Government, School Lobbying in Ethics Crosshairs

State politicians have made beating up on federal intrusion a cottage industry, but haven't hesitated to tell local governments what to do. On Thursday, local government representatives pushed back.

State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano.

Local government officials on Thursday unleashed a torrent of criticism against a pair of bills that would restrict how they can interact with members of the Texas Legislature.

The legislation, sponsored by freshman Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, is designed to bar school districts and local government entities from using tax dollars to hire lobbyists or pay associations that lobby for them in Austin, such as the Texas Association of Counties or the Texas Association of School Boards. Some last-minute tweaks would weaken the outright prohibition in some circumstances. 

Broadly speaking, though, Shaheen said local elected officials should represent their interests personally in Austin, not send lobbyists or hire third-party groups to do it for them. 

“This creates a situation where you have local governments that in some circumstances could be viewed as almost overpowering the voters, if you will, when it comes to representation in the Capitol,” Shaheen said. 

But Patti Jones, a Republican county commissioner from Lubbock, said county elected officials have full-time jobs back home and rely heavily on associations with lobbyists in Austin to watch out for their interests.

She also said that the same state officials who complain about federal government intrusion into state affairs don’t hesitate to impose their will on local government. 

“We’re the closest to the people,” Jones said. “We feel like that we don’t need the state of Texas telling us how to run the local government any more than they feel like the federal government ought to tell them how to run Texas.” 

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley echoed those sentiments, saying that state government treats local government like the “bad guy” instead of as a partner in solving issues that affect Texas taxpayers.

“It seems like over the last decade there are several who would want you to assume that anytime local government does anything it’s against the citizens and against the taxpayers who elect us,” Whitley said. “On a four year basis they get a chance to turn me out.”

The county elected officials were talking about Shaheen’s House Bill 1257, which impacts local governmental entities such as cities and counties. Another bill, HB 3219, would bar school districts from hiring lobbyists or contracting with associations for that purpose.

Peggy Venable, Texas director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said most taxpayers don’t want their school tax money going to lobbyists. She said that “simply represents more education dollars that are not being spent on instruction and in the classroom.” 

A couple of school board members, though, said they need lobbyists, or the associations that hire them, to keep up with the chaotic developments during a 140-day legislative session, when thousands of proposals impacting school districts are contemplated. 

“Trustees are unpaid volunteers in their communities and have duties not only in their jobs, but with their family and civic lives,” said Beth Walterscheidt, a school board member from Elgin. “It is not practical to expect them to track education legislation, to visit legislators’ offices, nor attend the numerous committee hearings throughout the legislative session.”

After the public hearing on the bills in a House committee Thursday, Shaheen said the restriction on school district lobbying has the best chance of surviving the opposition because it has the overt blessing of Gov. Greg Abbott, who made it a big campaign issue.

“With the governor’s support and his emphasis on ethics, I absolutely believe there’s a shot,” he said. “We will be dedicating a lot of our time and resources towards both bills, but clearly with the governor’s focus on ethics, I think the ISD bill will have a more prominent chance of moving forward.”

As for the one zeroing in on other local government entities, Shaheen said, “I’m on my own with this one.”

The bills were part of a slew of ethics legislation that came before the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. Abbott has raised the profile of ethics reform by declaring the issue a legislative “emergency” and asking lawmakers to dedicate the 2015 session to the topic.

A bill by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, would increase transparency in local government procurement. Amid scandals in state contracting and with billions of dollars trickling down to local government for water, transportation and other projects, she said it’s high time the Legislature update rules regarding local contracting.

“Due to the ever increasing amount of state dollars that the Legislature continues to send into local procurement opportunities, it’s imperative that we strengthen the standards in which the local government decisions or disclosures are held in order to provide an increased level of transparency to the public,” Davis said.

Her bill, HB 23, would require enhanced disclosure for local government employees who get wined and dined by contractors and for the first time extend disclosure requirements to close family members.

All of the ethics proposals were left pending in the committee.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Counties and Texas Association of School Boards are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.