Now that lawmakers have convened in Austin, private citizens and PACs are no longer able to make political contributions, so the sole financial influence on lawmakers during the legislative session comes from lobbyists. In fact, in session and out, lobbying is by far the biggest source of money in Texas politics — and taxpayers are footing the bill for a lot of it. This look at the City of Houston is the first installment in our series analyzing the top taxpayer-funded entities in Texas.
All across Texas, cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies are hiring lobbyists with taxpayer dollars to influence lawmakers. This practice of using funds that come directly or indirectly from taxpayers for political lobbying purposes is known as taxpayer-funded lobbying. Most often, those lobbying efforts are focused on increasing spending. (See some of the general arguments for and against the practice here.)
The effort to ban taxpayer funded lobbying is certain to be hotly debated in Austin this legislative session. The Republican Party of Texas has made eliminating the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying one of its top eight priorities, and bills to end the practice have been filed in both the Texas House (HB 749) and Senate (SB 234).
Although similar legislation passed in the Senate and died in the Texas House during the 2019 legislative session, political observers believe it may have a better chance of survival this time around. New Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan has come out in support of Texas House Rep. Mayes Middleton’s bill to ban taxpayer funded lobbying, and Governor Greg Abbott has expressed support as well.
Whether you support or oppose the practice, it’s helpful to understand what lobbying looks like for these entities, including their budget, who they hire, and what their objectives are.
Municipal governments in Texas have contracted to spend up to $50 million dollars to lobby lawmakers in Austin since 2019. The City of Houston is one of the most prominent of Texas’ taxpayer-funded clients. Houston’s local government provides services to over 2.3 million residents and has an operating budget for this fiscal year in excess of $5.1 billion. Houston residents and businesses fund that budget with their tax dollars, fees, and even fines (including, recently, fines for violating COVID-related lockdowns). In turn, Houstonians see their dollars fund numerous programs and municipal services. Among the programs local taxpayers are funding is the City of Houston’s lobbying operation.
According to the City of Houston’s website, local taxpayers are funding contracts for lobbying services at both the federal and state level. On a federal level, the City employs Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP as their lobbying firm, with a 2018 agreement designating their federal lobbying budget of up to $744,000.
While the federal contract is a sizable one, this case study will focus on the City of Houston’s even more robust state-level lobbying program, where the city committed as much as $1.3 million during the 2019 – 2020 election cycle.*
According to the most recent filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, from January, 2019 – December 2020, the City of Houston employed 18 lobbyists. Although individual lobbyists are not required to disclose exact compensation numbers, at least three of those 18 lobbyists reported compensation of $125,000 or higher, with one reporting a minimum disclosed compensation of $200,000.
|Lobbyist Name||Minimum Compensation||Maximum Compensation|
|William “Bill” Miller||$200,000.00||$249,999.99|
|John “Cliff” Johnson Jr||$125,000.00||$249,999.97|
|Arthur V Perkins||$25,001.00||$59,999.98|
|Carl S Richie||$25,000.00||$49,999.99|
|Jesse Ancira Jr||$25,000.00||$49,999.99|
|John R Clay Jr||$25,000.00||$49,999.99|
|Rene A Ramirez||$25,000.00||$49,999.99|
|Marc A Rodriguez||$10,000.00||$24,999.99|
|Neal T Jones Jr||$1.00||$9,999.99|
|R Clint Smith||$1.00||$9,999.99|
The City of Houston’s highest paid lobbyist was Bill Miller, co-founder of HillCo Partners, a prominent lobbying and public affairs firm based in Austin.** Following Miller on the list of Houston’s top lobbyists were Clayton Pope and Cliff Johnson, who were both hired by the City of Houston for somewhere between $125,000 and $249,999.97. All three are veteran lobbyists who often represent the interests of municipalities in Austin.
The City of Houston published a document on its website last year detailing its 41 lobbying principles for the 87th Texas Legislative Session (January-May 2021). According to the document, priorities set out by the City of Houston are broken down into ten categories: Regional Cooperation/General Government, Public Safety/Criminal Justice, Neighborhood Improvement and Quality of Life, Economic Development, Environment & Public Utilities, Education, Health, Mobility, Recovery Initiatives, and Other.
Notably, the very first priority listed on the document from the City of Houston urges opposition to the limitation of “the City’s local authority, public safety, revenue collection, city operations or other local programs.”This priority is followed by a third point in the Regional Cooperation/General Government section, which calls for supporting “proportionate funding and financing models by the State and other relevant units to assist Houston in meeting its needs including air quality, health care, public safety, housing, transportation, disaster recovery, and infrastructure development.”
Other notable priorities listed in the document include supporting healthcare access, including the expansion of Medicaid in Texas, supporting “job creation efforts as part of Texas Central high-speed rail project,” and supporting legislation that would “[expand] the meaningful input of local governments to state agencies with oversight of energy industries.”
In essence, the first priority for the City of Houston’s lobbyists is to oppose any revenue cuts or any reduction in funding from Austin. The vast majority of their objectives call for just the opposite — increasing funding for various programs. Whether you’re a fan of those programs or not, the City of Houston is spending taxpayer dollars to advocate for higher taxes to pay for more services.
Join us as we continue to provide you an inside look at both sides in the battle over taxpayer-funded lobbying. Subscribe to our email list for updates on legislation related to taxpayer-funded lobbying, along with politicians who support and oppose the practice. Search the full list of entities employing lobbyists in Texas here.
*Update 1/20/21: The data included in this article is for the 2020 election cycle (2019-2020). We’ve updated the language of this article to more clearly reflect this time frame. According to a press release on the City of Houston’s website, as of November 18, 2020, the city signed a two-year contract with Locke Lord LLP to provide state-level lobbying services, for a maximum of $757,000. This contract was not reported on the year-end reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, but we expect to see it, along with the names of the specific lobbyists, on the next report, due February 10, 2021.
**Update 1/20/21: Bill Miller reached out to Transparency USA to confirm that he is no longer providing lobbying services for the City of Houston. Subscribe here to get those details on the new lobbying contracts as soon as they are available.