During an interview on a local podcast this week, Amarillo’s mayor defended the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, likening it to hiring a plumber to make “flushing toilets or non-flushing toilets flush again.”

In an episode of the High Plains Pundit Podcast on Monday, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson was questioned by host Dan Butcher on the issue of taxpayer-funded lobbying. Butcher mentioned several candidates for the Amarillo City Council have criticized the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying after data surfaced showing Amarillo taxpayers paid up to $465,000 annually to cover the salaries of Austin-based lobbyists.

When pushed on the issue, Nelson told Butcher that lobbyists have served a purpose for the City of Amarillo, stating hiring Austin lobbyists with tax dollars is no different than a person hiring a plumber or an electrician who is not a member of their family.

“You said, you know, ‘These lobbyists don’t know us. They don’t live here in the city. They don’t know what we’re about. Why would we hire them?’ And I would give the analogy of a plumber or an electrician who comes to work in your house,” Nelson said.

“They’re not part of your family. They don’t know your family values or your character. But they sure know the one issue you need them to work on, and that is a flushing toilet. And that is an important issue, and you can tell them our priority is this flushing toilet, and they know how to make flushing toilets or non-flushing toilets flush again.”

Nelson went on to credit lobbyists hired by the City of Amarillo for securing the Texas Tech Vet School’s establishment in Amarillo. However, Nelson failed to mention that multiple private organizations had also hired lobbyists to discuss this issue during the 2019 legislative session.

Her statement drew immediate pushback from Amarillo City Council challengers. Tom Scherlen, a local business leader who is challenging Nelson ally Eddy Sauer for the Place 3 seat on the city council, criticized Nelson for her statement and said Amarillo should end its practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying.

“Unless you live in Amarillo, know the dynamics of Amarillo, and know the Amarillo economy, you don’t know a dadgum thing about ‘flushing a toilet’ in Amarillo,” Scherlen said. “I cannot believe Mayor Nelson would compare Amarillo to a toilet bowl, but this just goes to show why Amarillo is getting left behind. Our elected officials and the lobbyists they are hiring do not understand Amarillo or the problems that face our citizens.”

Amarillo catering company owner Michael Hunt, who is challenging Nelson in this year’s mayoral contest, also responded to Nelson’s comments in an interview with Texas Scorecard, saying he believes it’s time for Amarillo to end its practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying.

“I find it outrageous that the city council would spend this kind of money for lobbyists to do their dirty work while gouging the taxpayers,” Hunt said. “If the city has concerns about what’s happening in Austin, we have planes. We have cars. We can go down there. Our mayor shouldn’t need taxpayer-funded lobbyists to make the concerns in our community heard.”

Hunt also went on to mention his belief that funds spent by the City of Amarillo on lobbying fees could be put to better use in the Amarillo community, on things such as equipment and personnel costs for first responders.

“There’s more that can be done in our own community with $465,000 than just sending that money into the pockets of lobbyists,” Hunt said.

Ending taxpayer-funded lobbying has been a priority of the Republican Party of Texas, though legislation to ban the practice was killed in the Texas House in 2019.

While there is a clear divide between the Amarillo mayoral and city council candidates on the issue of taxpayer-funded lobbying, the choice between candidates who support and oppose the practice will ultimately be up to the voters.

Nelson will be opposed by Hunt, retired architect Carl Karas, and paralegal Claudette Smith in the May 1 election.

Early voting will begin on April 19.

Thomas Warren

Thomas Warren, III is the editor-in-chief of the Amarillo Pioneer newspaper in Amarillo, Texas.