|Let's Stop Cities From Using Tax Money to Seek More Tax Money|
Note: This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on May 25, 2012.
At a recent Texas House Ways and Means Committee hearing held to discuss eliminating or reforming property taxes, some members of the committee pointed out that lobbyists - many of them hired by local governments with taxpayer dollars - frequently advocate for greater government spending, higher tax rates and more bond debt.
That the professional advocates for bigger and more expensive government are often paid with taxpayer dollars brought Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, to recall a bill he introduced in 1997 that would have outlawed government lobbying. Elkins' bill, HB 2501, was powerful but simple. Its two sentences prohibited any political subdivision of the state from using public funds to hire someone whose main job was to lobby any governmental entity.
The bill failed, as have others since then. But 16 years later, Elkins should consider trying again.
In 1997, the state spent far less than the $173.5 billion it allocated for its two-year budget ending in 2013.
Texas voters send representatives to Austin to decide how best to allocate these billions of dollars of taxpayer money and whether or not to hike taxes to increase these funds. But these representatives don't face this task alone.
Attempting to help decide how and where these funds are spent is a regiment of lobbyists, some 1,700-strong, who also seek to influence laws and regulations to protect their clients, sometimes to the detriment of the public or other businesses.
The entities that hired these lobbyists - including big business, trial attorneys, and dozens of cities (the city of Austin forks out about $1 million per year, employing 14 lobbyists), school districts and special districts - spent some $344 million in the 2009 legislative session.
That means that there is one lobbyist for each $51.3 million of taxpayer dollars spent each year, while special interests are spending about $1 to influence every $504 of public money. It's a wonder the average taxpayer even has a chance.
Lobbying by companies, unions and individuals is considered political free speech and, as such, is generally protected under the First Amendment.
But what about government lobbying government? Should a city, for example, have the right to use taxpayer dollars to ask for more taxpayer money from the state? Local governments in Texas spend millions of taxpayer dollars every year trying to convince the state to give them more taxpayer money. This just doesn't seem right.
If Texas is to increase the odds that it can hold the line on taxes by slowing the increase in government spending and public debt, then a good place to start is in curtailing lobbying of government entities by other government entities using taxpayer dollars to ask for more taxpayer dollars. Texas Local Government Code 89.002 prohibits counties from paying dues to lobbying entities, but there are no such restrictions on cities, school districts and special districts.
Comparatively speaking, Texas' government is frugal. However, when it comes to lobbyists, especially lobbyists working for government whose job it is to ask for more state assistance, Texas has more in common with big-spending states such as California than is comfortable. The lobbying expenses in the two states are proportionately the same as a share of the budget.
Paying to lobby for more government spending with taxpayer dollars should be outlawed. If a local school board or city council wants more state assistance, they should ask for it the old fashioned way and seek a meeting with their representatives in the Texas Legislature.
The author would welcome your thoughts on this article.
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