STATE AFFAIRS CONSIDERS LOBBYING BAN FOR CITIES AND COUNTIES
(AUSTIN) — Local governments could no longer pay registered lobbyists in Austin to advocate on their behalf under a bill considered by the Senate State Affairs Committee Monday. SB 175, by Galveston Senator Mayes Middleton, would ban the use of public funds to pay for lobbying services to individuals or entities registered as lobbyists with the state government. Middleton says that political subdivisions like cities and counties shouldn't use taxpayer dollars to hire people who may advocate against the interests of those taxpayers. Middleton said that local governments spent $75 million in public funds on lobbying during the 2021 legislative session. "Taxpayers don't need an Austin lobbyist middleman," said Middleton. "We should not give certain elected officials special treatment to use taxpayer funds to have an advantage over the voices of local voters at their state capitol." Middleton added that such a ban might have the effect of encouraging more local constituents to interact with their own state representatives and senators.
Galveston Senator Mayes Middleton's bill would make it illegal for local entities to spend taxpayer funds on Austin lobbyists.
Middleton said that these lobbyist groups frequently act against the interests of taxpayers, citing past efforts to oppose election integrity reforms, a state income tax ban, teacher pension reforms, and property tax reform. "They are lobbying currently against trusting and empowering Texas parents through parental rights," he said. The bill would not apply to organizations like chambers of commerce, parent/teacher associations, fire, police, sheriff, or teacher associations. "Those are individual, dues paying associations. Individuals have a choice to join those groups, but right now taxpayers in the state of Texas have no choice but to pay for taxpayer-funded lobbyists," said Middleton. The bill would not prohibit local elected officials from using state money to come to Austin and lobby on behalf of those they represent due to existing state laws that exempt such officials and their staff from registering as lobbyists. "We all see a lot of government relations people around this building and they're not registered lobbyists because they don't have to be," said Middleton.
The enforcement mechanism in the bill is injunctive relief and would allow individual taxpayers to file suit against an entity they believe is violating this bill if it becomes law. "I've always believed the best enforcement is a taxpayer suit," said Middleton. "The one that's being harmed is the best watchdog for taxpayer dollars."
In session Monday, the Senate tentatively approved a bill, SB 2, that would raise the penalty for illegal voting and clarify the mens rea - that is, the state of mind - a person must have to be guilty of illegal voting. Last session's major elections bill rolled back the penalty for illegal voting from a felony to a misdemeanor; this bill will return the penalty to a felony, which bill author and Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes said had been the status quo for the last 50 years. Hughes said the penalty was lessened as part of a last minute amendment added in the House in the hectic closing days of session. "Over in the House, toward the very end, …this amendment was added," he said. "Whether you love this amendment or hate it, this issue was not debated, was not vetted through the normal legislative process last session." The mens rea question arises from a recent state Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that found that to be convicted of illegal voting, a person must know they are casting a vote illegally. In committee, the Office of Attorney General offered testimony saying this is a significant change from the way this crime had been prosecuted in the past. SB 2 would make it so that a person need only know that they are of a status that precludes illegal voting – but not that that status precludes voting. A non-citizen, for example, would not need to know that non-citizens cannot vote, just that they are a non-citizen. Hughes said these aren't huge departures from state law but rather a return to the way the state operated in this regard prior to 2021. The bill must face another, final vote before it can head to the House.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 14 at 11 a.m.