AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin is a familiar sparring partner with the Texas legislature.
Bracing for a contentious legislative session when state lawmakers return to the Texas Capitol in January, city leaders defended the use of taxpayer-funded lobbyists to achieve and defend agenda goals while Republican leaders fight to end the practice.
“Everybody should have the ability, as effectively as they can, to advocate for their positions and make sure the legislators know what’s true and what’s not true,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN. “People on the other side just don’t want to hear from folks in Austin or other cities — and the surest way to do that is to make sure they’re not part of the conversation, and that’s not right.”
In 2020, the City of Austin has spent $435,000-$824,000, according to state ethics reports, on lobbying services with five firms. Three lobbyists on the City’s outside, taxpayer-funded team work for Focused Advocacy, an agency that specializes in lobbying for municipalities.
Focused Advocacy has received $110,000-$225,000 from the City of Austin this year and lobbies for 16 other cities, ethics reports show.
Brie Franco, director of the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Dept., said outside lobbyists are vetted for potential conflicts and follow the agenda set forth by the Austin City Council.
“Out of the 7,300 bills filed each session, about 2,500 affect cities,” Franco said. “It’s seeking that assistance for the legislative expertise, for the knowledge of how the system works, and then also the relationships with the members.”
Banning taxpayer-funded lobbying is a legislative priority of the Texas Republican Party. The state Senate is holding a hearing on the issue next month and presumed House Speaker-elect Dade Phelan supported a push to end the practice in the last legislative session.
More than $40 million of taxpayer funds were spent on lobbying in the 2017 legislative session, according to a report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Chuck DeVore, vice president of the foundation’s national initiatives, said cities could spend their resources on bill analysis and tracking, which isn’t considered lobbying under Texas law.
“I certainly would like to see a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying,” DeVore said. “A lot of these lobbyists who have commercial clients also help guide or control those commercial clients’ campaign donation budgets.”
City of Austin lobbyists will spend the upcoming legislative session advocating for coronavirus relief and defending the City Council’s vote to cut or reallocate up to $150 million from the police budget.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both vowed to punish cities that “defund police” with legislation.
The City maintains that lobbyists help facilitate meetings between constituents and lawmakers and are key pieces to protecting local control, as they did when residents expressed concerns about short-term rentals being used as party houses.
“I can’t think of a more grassroots way of using lobbyists so that these folks can tell their story of what’s happened in their homes and in their neighborhoods,” Franco said.