By Lynn Woolley
I have always wanted to break the backs of the big lobbying firms. Not kill them out, mind you, because lobbying is protected in the Constitution. But it would be wonderful to stop the bribery and have legislators that actually represent the people.
I was recently honored to moderate a candidates’ debate – and asked two of them –running for Texas House District 55 – about accepting free stuff from lobbyists. I also asked about the practice of government lobbies – funded by taxpayer money – that try to get taxes raised on the very people that pay them.
Incumbent Molly White and former representative Hugh Shine both answered – at some length – and when the debate was over, I realized that I STILL don’t know the answer to my questions. But I’ll tell you this! The lobbying industry is prospering in Austin!
So what’s the question?
As moderator for the evening, I was not able to take extensive notes. But Sally Grace Holtgrieve did. She was there to cover the event for the Frank Mayborn Enterprises newspapers. She even quoted me in her article in the Temple Daily Telegram and the Killeen Daily Herald.
Here is how I asked the first question:
“Washington is crawling with lobbyists — but no more so than Austin is crawling with them. Will you take a dime, a car ride, an airplane ride, a meal, anything from a lobbyist?”
Now this is loaded question and it was intended to be. In my (most humble) opinion, a state legislator is sent to Austin to serve the people. Lobbyists have no particular ideology or political beliefs. Some may be called “Republican” or “Democrat,” but essentially, they seek to accomplish a task that some interest group has hired them to accomplish. Personal feelings do not get in the way. The lobbying firm will only continue to make money based on results. So whatever the client wants done – the lobbyist’s job is to get it done.
Some lobbyists (perhaps the vast majority) operate within the rules – but you’ll recall that Governor Greg Abbott had as a top priority in the recent legislative session to pass a major ethics bill. Of course, it was watered down.
You’ll also recall that in the ongoing dispute over admissions favoritism between the University of Texas administration and the rogue regent, Wallace Hall, one of the things that came up was that UT used football tickets to bribe members of the Legislature.
So all I wanted hear was:
NO, I WILL NOT EVAH ACCEPT ANY GIFT OF ANY TYPE FROM ANY LOBBYIST, NEVAH, EVAH!
What they said.
Thanks to Ms. Holtgrieve’s careful note taking and subsequent column in the papers on January 23, 2016 – I can quote what both candidates said in response to a simple yes-or-no question.
Hugh Shine was first to answer.
He said that everyone in the room who worked in a professional setting probably had a lobbyist in Austin.
“If you don’t, you’re probably an independent businessperson that’s not part of NFIB [National Federation of Independent Business] or any other association. Lobbyists do serve a purpose.”
He went on to say he believes that lobbyists should be treated by state legislators with a great deal of discretion, but that there are many cases where lobbyists are representing the people in the district. He continued:
“So I don’t think you should cut that off. As far as I’m concerned, if someone wants to have lunch or dinner with me, if I want to have lunch with them, I’ll pick up the tab. I’m not interested in living on the lobby. A lot of members do that. That’s not my objective. I want to be home. I want to go to Austin, I want to serve the district, I want to do the Lord’s work in the Devil’s city, and I want to come home to my family and meet with my constituents that I represent. I see serving as your representative as public service and that’s what I want to do.”
A quick memory refresher: The question was (paraphrased) will you accept any gifts from lobbyists?
Molly White said her views on the subject are the same as Shine’s.
“I’m not going down [to Austin] to be schmoozed by lobbyists. I’m going down there to represent my constituents. But a lot of lobbyist have come to me and taught me about different issues that I didn’t know about. I take that with a grain, but my main objective is to represent you and your values down in Austin. I’m sure there are a lot of lobbyists that go around and wine and dine and schmooze other members, but I’m not part of that. It’s not anything that I’m interested in doing. I don’t believe in what they have to offer.”
So what did we learn from these answers?
From Mr. Shine, learned that lobbyists represent some of the people – and that’s true. (Typically, they represent the rich and connected.) We also learned from his response that “a lot of members do that.” The reference was to what he called “living on the lobby.” If he’s right, we have a problem.
From Rep. White, we learned that lobbyists work to “teach” legislators about issues. We also learned that she thinks a lot of legislators can’t resist the temptation of being wined and dined and schmoozed.
Are we feeling pretty good about our Legislature yet?
Note that neither candidate just said “NO.”
Also – remember when Rick Perry was governor and there was a big to-do about ending the practice of Sanctuary Cities in Texas? It nearly happened – but two powerful men, the late Houston homebuilder Bob Perry and the head of the giant HEB grocery chain, Charles Butt, hired perhaps the biggest, best and most powerful lobbying firm in Austin.
That would be HillCo Partners. They killed that bill pretty fast – and it was all over before you knew it. No such bill ever reached the Governor’s desk. So much for the will of the people when two wealthy businessmen want to maintain the flow of cheap labor.
And another thing…what about tax money used to pay for lobbyists?
“These are all taxing entities that use your tax money to hire lobbyists to go to Austin to get your taxes raised. Could that be stopped? Should it be stopped?”
White didn’t know. She said:
“But my staff and I know when the lobbyists come in to meet with us and discuss their issues we will listen to them, but we have a set of guidelines that we go by to judge each and every bill that comes before us. When I look at a bill, if it has something to do with my district and the folks back home, I call back home to the people I know and look at how they feel about the bill and if the organization is truly representing their needs.”
Remember that the bulk of Texas school districts recently used taxpayer money to sue their own taxpayers in an attempt to force higher taxes. Apparently, the highly paid lobbyists that were trying to get more money for the schools fell down on the job.
Shine was not sure whether organizations use taxes to pay for lobbyists or how they are funded.
“You have associations that represent people that live in the district and people choose to be a part of those associations. Whether it’s the school boards or the Texas State Teachers Association, or any of the organizations, they represent people that are in the district. You visit with people in the district, of course, but they’re going to be an extension for you down there as well.”
Another reminder of what the question was. It was about whether counties, cities and ISDs should hire lobbyists to force more money out of the people.
She learned that there are members of the Texas Legislature that have concerns:
From banning office visits by taxpayer-funded lobbyists to filing legislation preventing local entities’ use of public dollars for lobbying efforts, two freshmen legislators have set their sights on the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying in Texas.
State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, recently announced a policy of “turning away lobbyists when they are advocating for a position or bill on behalf of an entity using taxpayer dollars to hire them.” Burton continues meeting with local officials representing cities, counties and school districts throughout her district.
“Many taxpayers don’t even realize their own money is being used to pay lobbyists who are down in Austin, advocating for policies that could be in direct conflict with their own beliefs,” Burton said.
Just one more thing…!
You may have read that members of the Republican establishment have decided they’d rather have Donald Trump as the presidential nominee than Ted Cruz. Amazingly, an AP story stumbled onto the truth. Writing about the “deep disdain” the RNC and other entrenched Republicans have for Cruz, the story stated this:
“Cruz is seen as more likely to try to upend the web of lobbyists, donors and other powerbrokers who have long wielded enormous influence in the Republican Party.”
It’s kind of amazing to see that type of truth printed so bluntly in a AP story. It is indeed why Cruz is hated; he might rain on their cozy little relationship with lobbyists. In Washington, the House of Representatives is supposed to represent the people, — not the K Street lobbyists. In Austin, the State Legislature is supposed to do the same thing.
The answers I was hoping to hear regarding the two questions about lobbying were:
“No, I never will accept any gift from a lobbyist, period.”
“I oppose, and will fight to stop the practice of counties, cities and school districts of sending paid lobbyists to Austin.”
I’m still not sure exactly what I heard. But that wasn’t it.
Tagged with: Bob Perry, Charles Butt, FME newspapers, Gov. Greg Abbott's ethics bill, HEB grocery chain, Hillco Partners, Hugh Shine, Lobbying as bribery, Lobbying cesspool, Lobbyists in Austin, Lou Ann Anderson, Molly White, Sally Grace Holtgrieve, Santuary City Bill in Texas, Status Quo, Ted Cruz & Donald Trump vs Status Quo, Texas Association of Counties, Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Municipal League, UT admissions scandal, Wallace Hall