Lobbying is big business in Austin. Over $667 million was spent by lobbyist clients to influence lawmakers during the 2020 election cycle (January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2020), with the vast majority of that spending occurring while the Texas legislature was convened in 2019. Yet only two percent of all those expenditures have a legislator’s name attached to them. That’s right. In the entire two-year cycle, only $12,944,291 ever made its way onto a detailed report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
So what did lobbyists do with the rest of the money? And most importantly, how can people see which lawmakers they are focusing their persuasive efforts on?
When it comes to Texas lobbying, these are questions we hear frequently from our readers. Here is just a sample of write-in responses from our 2021 survey detailing what readers wanted to know:
“Connection from special interest to the lobbyist to the politician to the bill to their vote.”
“Correlation between direct contributions, (so-called) independent spending and lobbying and a lawmaker’s votes and positions.”
“Which lobbyist is spending the most money on greasing the wheel of the Governor’s [sic]?”
“Associate our state reps/senators with specific lobbying groups”
Texas residents are interested in exploring the relationship between lobbying dollars and who that money is being spent on. However, the details of those lobbyists’ activities — who they see, how they are entertaining key politicians, and what they talk about behind closed doors — remain largely a mystery. That’s because, unlike campaign finance, there’s plenty of margin in the TEC reporting requirements to allow lobbyists to keep their interactions mostly off-record.
Lobbyists in Texas enjoy a high threshold for detailed reporting. They are only required to report lobbying expenditures if the amount exceeds 60 percent of the legislative per diem, which is currently set at $221 per day. This means only expenditures in excess of $132.60 per legislator lobbied, per day, must ever be reported to the TEC. If a lobbyist does not spend more than this amount on an individual legislator in a day, there is no obligation to record that lawmaker’s name in association with that lobbyist. The lax requirements present plenty of loopholes for lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers well, while remaining under the limit. For example, a lobbyist could pick up the tab on $530 worth of drinks for four key legislators and never have to report who was there or that the meeting even occurred.
That’s how a mere two percent of the money in lobbying ended up being associated with specific members of the Texas legislature last cycle. This time around, Texans can expect a similar story, with the majority of the money likely already spent by lobbyists to exert influence during the 2021 legislative session.
And while there is a strict moratorium on campaign donations during the session, lobbyists are under no such restrictions.
During each regular session of the Texas Legislature, campaign contributions for statewide officials and legislators stop, with these politicians barred from taking any campaign contributions. A donor who wants to contribute $100 to a legislator may not do so until 30 days after the session ends in late May. This is designed to prevent donors and PACs from currying favor with legislators while they are casting votes.
Lobbyists, however, may continue making expenditures of any amount to influence legislators during this time. The whole purpose of lobbyists is to represent another person or entity and to get paid to influence legislation — the exact goal the campaign finance moratorium is trying to prevent donors and PACs from doing.
This cycle, donations to members of the Texas Legislature were completely on hold from December 12, 2020 – June 21, 2021. In contrast, private and taxpayer-funded lobbyists have already reported up to $478 million in contracts since January 1, 2021. And under the current laws (set by the Texas Legislature) most Texans will never actually know where the majority of these influential dollars went during the legislative session.
For more about Texas lobbying and how we display the reported TEC information, read How Lobbying Works. You can also explore the most prominent lobbyists, private clients, and taxpayer-funded clients active in Texas this cycle.