If Texas Capitol remains closed, lobbyists say special interests will thrive away from public view

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Legislation is debated and voted on inside the Texas Capitol in Austin every other year. But it’s two blocks down the road where the sausage is really made.

At the corner of Ninth Street and Congress Avenue, towering buildings house dozens of lobbyists who gladly welcome lawmakers to discuss their clients’ policy and financial goals. With the state’s biennial legislative session approaching, and the Texas Capitol still closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic, some lobbyists say special interests could have an even greater role in the coming year.

“Everything happens (at Ninth and Congress),” said Bill Miller, a veteran Austin lobbyist who represents professional sports franchises like the Houston Texans and Houston Astros in discussions with state health officials about returning to the field. “If I can’t be there or you can’t be there, we’re still going to talk but it’s going to be less evident.”

“People are going to wonder more about what’s going on and how it’s working.”

During a normal legislative session, lawmakers frequently collide with lobbyists, journalists, and members of the public in the halls of the Capitol, though that seems unlikely in the upcoming legislative session given the current risks associated with coronavirus.

KXAN requested statements from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about plans for public participation in the upcoming legislative session but has not received a response.

A Shrinking Pie

The fight for funding among state agencies is expected to be fierce in the next legislative session.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a revised budget estimate for the fiscal year 2021 on Friday which included a budget deficit of $4.6 billion. The shortfall, he said, was caused by an economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic and struggling oil prices.

In May, state leaders directed many agencies to slash budgets by 5% with shortfalls expected from the pandemic.

Public Safety vs. Public Participation

Jason Sabo, an Austin lobbyist representing non-profit organizations, said state leaders will have to balance public safety with public participation in the upcoming legislative session.

“(The Texas Capitol is) the only place in the state where everybody comes together and if we lose that our political culture changes,” Sabo said. “If we lose the public participation in public policy, I assure you, lobbyists like me won’t be going anywhere.”

“We will still be here regardless of whether not you’re here.”

Standing committees typically begin meeting in the spring before a legislative session but much of that work has been limited during the pandemic. State agencies will submit legislative appropriation requests in August.

Both Miller and Sabo believe the democratic process benefits from public participation. It’s unclear whether participation will occur at the Texas Capitol in 2021 or be limited to the offices of lobbyists, like their own, a couple of blocks down the road.

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