The newly elected board of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, Montgomery County’s groundwater regulatory agency, is continuing to shake up the status quo with more pro-citizen reforms.
At their January 15 special meeting, the board voted unanimously to take no action on agenda item 16, which read, “Consider and take action as necessary regarding the District’s RFQ for a lobbyist.”
Most conservatives agree that ambiguities in the Texas Water Code allowing overzealous water regulators to infringe on private property rights is a problem that needs to be addressed in the 86th legislative session. Many on the board are concerned that the pro-property rights reforms they have recently enacted could be erased by the state “with the stroke of a pen.”
While the board was in agreement that legislation is needed to fix the water code, there was less agreement on a strategy to get the legislation passed.
LSGCD Board President Webb Melder and Vice President Harry Hardman, along with Board Secretary Stuart Traylor, believe that the best way to get the legislation passed would be for the district to hire a lobbyist. While they acknowledged the abuses and negative connotations surrounding lobbyists, they think in this case the district would be best served by hiring one who would act as a “watchdog” to track all bills that could affect the LSGCD or water policy.
“I do not advocate lobbying for the sake of lobbyists,” said Hardman, who said the district needed “an asset that works on behalf of the district, that has the expertise to bring to our attention legislation that not only has the word ‘water’ in it, but also other legislation that could pertain to it.”
State Rep. Steve Toth (R-Conroe), while generally strongly opposed to taxpayer-funded lobbying, recommended that in this specific case it would be beneficial for the LSGCD to hire a lobbyist if they wanted to get the legislation passed given the stranglehold lobbyists have on the Texas legislature. Toth said he would be willing to champion any pro-citizen legislation aligned with the board regardless of the strategy they decide to pursue.
However, the majority of the LSGCD board indicated they were opposed to hiring lobbyists, with directors Jim Spigener, Jon Bouche, Jonathan Prykryl, and Larry Rogers speaking out against the idea.
“For the record, I’m against any government entity hiring a taxpayer-funded lobbyist,” said Prykryl. “I am not in favor of this district hiring a watchdog. I believe this district employs people on a full-time basis who are very capable of monitoring bills filed in Austin.”
Opponents of taxpayer-funded lobbying argued that the board members themselves would be more powerful advocates on behalf of the district than any lobbyist, and taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for something that the board members should be doing.
Bouche, who is also a member of the Montgomery County Republican Party Steering Committee, acknowledged that ending taxpayer-funded lobbying is one of the five legislative priorities of the Republican Party of Texas. Bouche said in a statement released before the meeting that he would vote “no” on hiring a lobbyist:
“I plan to work with our representatives in the State House and Senate to fix the flawed legislation that is the cause of this mess. That is the next step, and we don’t need a lobbyist for that.”
Another option that has been proposed by some would be for those aligned with the LSGCD board’s free-market, pro-private property rights agenda to create a PAC and hire a lobbyist through private donations given to the PAC.
In an effort led by Kelli Cook, many citizens reached out to the board before and during the meeting, encouraging them to reject taxpayer-funded lobbying. Despite recovering from a recent severe concussion, Cook mobilized opposition to the proposal and appeared at the meeting to speak against it. Activists Eric Yollick, Bob Bagley, and John Wertz also spoke against tax-funded lobbying.
Seeing that the proposal did not have support from a majority of the board, Melder asked for a motion to take no action on the agenda item, which passed unanimously.
“We want to send a very clear message that we share the same concerns,” said Melder. “It’s just a matter of how we get there.”