In a rare occurrence, a lobbyist sent to the legislature by Harris County admitted that he was funded by tax dollars to advocate against taxpayers’ interests.

Ben Stephens, a Houston-based lobbyist retained by the county, testified against Senate Bill 554 saying that, if passed, it would limit the county’s flexibility when it comes to project development.

After Stephens’ testimony, State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) asked, “So, you said you were hired by Harris County? So, we’re using taxpayer dollars for you to come up here and testify against a bill that’s going to benefit taxpayers?”

Oddly enough, Stephens replied, “Yes, sir.”

SB 554 would enhance private property rights by increasing the requirements for entities that obtain land through eminent domain, forcing them to prove they are making progress towards their stated public use. Specifically, Stephens testified against the bill’s removal of two provisions that allow an entity to prove they are making progress: the condemnation of adjacent land or a letter from the entity stating they are making progress.

Under 2011 law, property owners can repurchase land acquired through eminent domain if within ten years the property is not used for its stated purpose, unless the condemning entity has made “actual progress.”

This admission is unlike any other, as most taxpayer-funded lobbyists attempt to conceal the actual reason they are hired—to advocate in the interests of an entity rather than in the interest of taxpayers. Luckily for taxpayers, State Rep. Mayes Middleton (R–Wallisville) has filed House Bill 281 to prohibit political subdivisions from using tax dollars for this purpose in future legislative sessions.


Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.