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No agreement yet on lobby registration rules

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Leslie Pool has released an updated proposal for fundamental changes to Austin’s lobby registration laws, and while the new version includes an idea proposed by a group of land-use professionals who objected to the previous version, the changes did not eliminate many of their objections.

The new version includes an exception for people who do not lobby for more than 26 hours per calendar quarter and raises the lobbyist registration compensation threshold to $2,000 per quarter. The current threshold is $200 per quarter.

Stuart Sampley, president of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, leads the objecting group, which is composed of members of 11 professional organizations that include home builders, engineers, contractors and architects. They had suggested the 26-hour threshold, the same as that provided by exceptions to the state’s lobby law.

Attorney Fred Lewis, who wrote the proposal for Pool, said Tuesday that the 26-hour threshold was adopted into state law in September. Previously, he said state law had an exception for people who spent less than 5 percent of their compensated time lobbying. However, he said “people argued how long they worked in a week,” making the provision unenforceable. He attributed the change to lobbyist Jack Gullahorn.

The Lewis-Pool proposal does not include an estimated cost for the city, but it does raise the fees for lobbyists from the current $300 a year to $350 a year. There is also a proposal to tie the fee to the cost-of-living index and to have it “revised automatically every year in increments of $10 at the time of the city budget adoption.”

The land-use professionals have said they believe that “raising the fee and tying it to the cost of living, rather than the cost of administering the ordinance, violates the First Amendment.” They cite several legal precedents for their opinion.

In addition to the lobby registration ordinance currently on the books, the city’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund directs money from lobby registration fees into the coffers of certain Council candidates in runoff elections. Section 2-2-64 of the city code directs the city clerk to determine how much money is in the fund and make it available to candidates who sign a campaign contract with the city and abide by the regulations of the ordinance.

According to an Austin Monitor story last January, Council candidates Susana Almanza, Pio Renteria and Pool each received more than $27,000 from the city’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund for the December runoff election in which Renteria and Pool prevailed.

One attorney who did not wish to be identified told the Monitor, “There is great constitutional infirmity in tying the fees paid by lobbyists for anything other than administration of the lobbying ordinance.” A lobbyist who also did not wish to be identified said the same thing.

Lewis pointed out that one of the most important changes to the proposal, as far as he is concerned, would allow a large engineering firm, for example, to file one report for everyone in the firm who lobbies. This would require considerably less paperwork and would cost the firm $350 in total instead of $350 for each person who interacts with a city employee. The firm would still be required to list the name of the client and the subject matter, but the policy would be considerably more lenient than state law, Lewis said.

Sampley responded to the latest version of the ordinance via email to Pool. He said, “Our coalition has carefully reviewed your proposals, with counsel, and would like to clarify that your claim that we have misinterpreted any of the exemptions is misguided. On a daily basis, building and design professionals must engage in an interactive process with city staff for the purpose of achieving compliance with city codes. No other municipality or the state define such communications as lobbying. We will continue to work with you to seek a proposal that is fair and transparent but also that legitimately addresses the concerns raised by our coalition.”

The latest proposal is slated to go before the Council Audit and Finance Committee Monday morning.

Editor’s note: On Tuesday night, the Ethics Commission endorsed Pool’s ordinance. The Austin Monitor will have those details in Thursday’s edition.

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