Tax-funded lobbying is big business in Austin, and two firms are currently engaged in a lawsuit over contracts with several Texas cities. Since the public is likely to be indirectly subsidizing this case, perhaps the least that will result is greater transparency between governmental bodies and the lobbyists they hire with tax dollars.
The Texas Tribune reports that a feud between HillCo Partners and Focused Advocacy, Austin-based lobby shops headed by former state legislators, has erupted into open war in the form of a lawsuit filed in the Travis County District Court.
Near the center of the controversy are lobby contracts with the cities of Burleson, Corpus Christi, Denton, Grand Prairie, Irving, and Sugar Land.
For a profession that generally shuns public scrutiny, veteran lobbyist, and former lawmaker, Babe Schwartz said such public disputes are unusual, particularly because lobbyists are “making excellent money for little work”.
Mr. Schwartz added that there may be some fallout from the litigation, specifically lobbyists and clients “may require more written contracts, they may be more specific, they may handle their responsibilities and financial matters” in a different way.
Taxpayers and open-government advocates could herald this result.
Particularly when many lobbyists are “getting paid handsomely” (a phrase used by Mr. Schwartz) to represent governmental entities, such as cities, counties, school districts, municipal utility districts (or MUDs), etc., yet there is little to show for their work. There’s typically not a written legislative agenda regarding specific legislation, and tax-funded lobbyists rarely testify before legislative committees.
Take Fred Hill, for example, he’s a former legislator that now represents governmental entities as a lobbyist. During the 2009 legislative session, Mr. Hill appears to have been paid by at least eight North Texas cities, yet never once testified at a public committee hearing.
So what was he doing?
Because so much lobbying is done in a seemingly secretive, near clandestine, manner, the public cannot determine if their money is being well spent. Further, it’s not always clear if the tax-funded lobbyist is protecting or hindering taxpayers’ interests, or if they are actually doing anything to earn their keep.
Now some governmental bodies do issue a public agenda, but then try to hide interactions with their lobbyists. Is this out of fear that the public might find out that the tax-funded lobbyist is not pushing the “public” agenda, and is perhaps pursuing an alternative course on the entity’s behalf?
An unnamed lobbyist didn’t attempt to dispell the fact that there is public concern, and admitted that their profession “isn’t looked on really favorably.” They then went on to add, “Any type of spotlight on our industry probably is not good.”
The spotlight of public scrutiny may not be good for lobby business, but that’s exactly why the public and taxpayers should demand it.