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The state’s top three elected officials — governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House — would love to cut off the financial supply lines to lobbyists who represent cities, counties and other local governments.
One reason is their belief in the primacy of state government, the idea that the powers of the locals flow from Austin and that mayors and county commissioners and others have gotten too big for their britches. It’s a reasonable thing to argue about.
Another is that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to lobby for things some taxpayers don’t support, like texting-while-driving bans, restrictions on short-term house rentals, sanctuary for undocumented immigrants or plastic bag prohibitions. It’s hard to disagree with that — especially if you don’t give it any thought.
But think away — that rhetoric doesn’t hold water. Nothing happens in the state Capitol, or in your county courthouse or your city hall, that has unanimous support. At any given moment, somebody in government is making a decision or taking an action you don’t agree with.
For one thing, nobody’s favorite candidates win all the elections. Government is full of people you voted against, whether your party is in power or not.
To tinker with a cliché: Taxpayer money is used for what some of the people want, all of the time. If we barred spending any dollar in a way that someone objected to, we’d spend nothing.
Nothing in government, from wars to walls to Social Security, has unanimous support. Every single tax dollar is spent against the wishes of some number of taxpayers. You win some, you lose some.
The taxpayer-funded lobbyist fight is about which elected officials — state or local — decide what to do with the public’s money from local taxes. The question marked the conversation with a political activist this summer that undid House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Legislation banning such spending failed in the session earlier this year. But if you look at the assignments from Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for the next legislative session, it’ll be back.
“Study how governmental entities use public funds for political lobbying purposes,” Bonnen said in his homework assignment for the House State Affairs Committee during the layover before the 2021 session. “Examine what types of governmental entities use public funds for lobbying purposes. Make recommendations to protect taxpayers from paying for lobbyists who may not represent the taxpayers’ interests.”
Patrick’s instruction for the Senate State Affairs Committee are similar: “Study how governmental entities use public funds for political lobbying purposes. Examine what types of governmental entities use public funds for lobbying purposes. Make recommendations to protect taxpayers from paying for lobbyists who may not represent the taxpayers’ interests.”
The House is also looking at municipal ordinances and policies on things like short-term rentals, paid sick leave and homelessness, and at local sales taxes and how the revenues are used.
Elected state officials didn’t make this stuff up. They hear a lot from local taxpayers about soaring property taxes, and it doesn’t do them a lot of good to tell those taxpayers that there is no such thing as a state property tax in Texas. It’s all local. They see angry voters in pain and want credit for making the pain go away — which is more or less what those officials are paid to do.
If you don’t want your property taxes to go up, you probably don’t like it when someone representing your city government tells the people in Austin to stop trying to impose limits on property tax increases. If you want your city to increase services or hire more people, it might require more property taxes. And you can tell city hall how you feel about these things when you vote.
That’s the idea behind local control. And it doesn’t matter, really, whether the person representing the city is elected, a city employee or a lobbyist hired to handle one issue. Somebody’s making the city’s case to the people in state government.
State officials don’t see it that way. A new law — fought vigorously by those local government lobbyists — requires most local governments to get voter permission before raising revenues from property taxes by more than 3.5%.
We’ll all know within a couple of years how that works out. In the meantime, the state is redoubling its efforts to rein in the powers of those local governments. Bonnen, in his fateful recorded summer conversation with political activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, was blunt about it.
“Let me tell you something,” Bonnen said. “In this office and in the conference room on that end, any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.”
“I hope the next session's even worse,” added state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock.
“And I'm all for that,” Bonnen said. He won’t be back as speaker next year to enforce that. But the House members who will be back are working from the instructions he handed out earlier this week.