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County leaders denounce anti-lobbying proposal

Monday, May 6, 2019 by Jack Craver

In addition to imposing strict constraints on local governments’ ability to raise property tax revenue, Republicans at the state Legislature want to limit how those governments can spend their tax dollars.

A number of bills have been filed this session that would prohibit local governments from spending public funds to advocate for or against legislation.

Such legislation, said Deece Eckstein, who heads Travis County’s intergovernmental relations office, would not only bar governmental entities from hiring lobbyists, but would cripple groups that advocate for local governments around the state, such as the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties and the Texas Municipal League.

It would be a “tremendous imposition” on the ability of local elected officials to communicate their positions to state government, Eckstein told members of the Travis County Commissioners Court at its April 30 meeting.

Similar bills have been drafted in past years, explained Eckstein, but they have not gained nearly as much traction as during this session. This time, he suggested, there is a good chance the legislation will pass.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion responded rhetorically: “Can they pass a bill to eliminate the right to vote?”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt noted that a previous bill floated at the Legislature would have barred elected officials even from going to the Capitol to voice their views on bills. Fortunately, she said, that idea was eventually kiboshed in recognition of the likely First Amendment implications.

With the bills being discussed now, said Eckhardt, “We can blink and hum” about state legislation, “but perhaps not organize under things like the Texas Association of Urban Counties.”

Eckhardt noted that Republicans were not putting forward similar lobbying limitations on chambers of commerce, all of which are exempt from property taxes and many of which are directly supported by municipal governments.

Commissioner Brigid Shea noted that many of the groups that receive a warm welcome at the state Capitol are tax-exempt, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank headquartered a few blocks south of the Capitol on Congress Avenue.

“This is an attack on the ability of local governments to defend themselves,” said Shea.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the court’s only Republican, agreed that the legislation was an overreach from the state and that local governments had to maintain the ability to advocate for their interests. However, he cautioned his colleagues that the idea of barring the use of taxpayer dollars on lobbyists likely resonated with many of their constituents.

“I cringe every time we have these conversations because I know it can come back to haunt us,” he said.

Daugherty said Republicans no longer regard him as one of their own due to his vocal opposition to their efforts to limit local property taxing power. He bemoaned the “us vs. them” mentality, but argued that local governments wouldn’t do themselves any good by simply denouncing the state.

“We have got to be smarter than just saying, ‘the heck with you,’” he said.

“I agree the rhetoric of blame suppresses collaboration, but I also agree that they’re not offering any collaboration,” replied Eckhardt.

Upon Eckstein’s recommendation, the court voted unanimously to add a position to the county’s legislative agenda to “preserve the ability of local governments to effectively and efficiently communicate with the Legislature and other state and federal entities.”

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