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Questions Raised About Lobbyist Daughter of Texas House Education Chair

The increased prominence of a Texas State Representative’s daughter as a lobbyist on education issues is raising questions about the propriety of him serving as chair of the House Public Education Committee.

It is widely assumed that Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) will retain his position as chair of the House Public Education Committee during this legislative session, and the official announcement is expected within days. Aycock’s daughter, Michelle Smith, is a lobbyist with the Austin-based firm HillCo Partners, which counts among its clients Raise Your Hand Texas, a pro-public education group that opposes private school vouchers and other issues supported by school choice advocates.

In an interview with Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune earlier this month as part of the online media outlet’s ongoing “Conversation” series, Aycock promised that he would recuse himself from votes that involved matters on which his daughter was lobbying (the pertinent section begins around the 47:10 mark):

An audience member asked Aycock about his daughter’s lobbying work for Raise Your Hand Texas and other education clients of HillCo Partners. “Do you consider this to be a conflict of interest…and if so, how do you intend to resolve it?”

Aycock replied that his daughter’s main client was the Fast Growth School Coalition, not Raise Your Hand Texas. He acknowledged that she was a lobbyist for HillCo and had done this work before he became committee chair. “I don’t think she could have possibly grown up in my house without talking about education policy,” he said, “so it wasn’t any great surprise that she worked with these issues.”

“If any of her bills regarding Fast Growth School Coalition come to my committee,” Aycock continued, “then I’ll certainly recuse myself from that decision.”

“Has that come up in the past?” asked Smith. “Did it come up in previous sessions, that the stuff she worked on came up?”

Aycock replied by mentioning one education issue in a previous session that he had supported before she became a lobbyist, and how he had continued to support that issue but had told her that he could not communicate with her about it when a bill on that topic was being debated.

“So again just to be clear,” asked Smith, “anything that she works on, you’ll recuse yourself?”

“I’ll recuse myself,” Aycock confirmed.

However, Aycock’s promise that he would maintain independence from his daughter’s lobbying work has not been consistently kept. A New York Times article from May 2013 described the debate over a bill to expand Texas’ online education options, and mentioned how Aycock openly passed on a communication received from his daughter’s lobbying client during the debate:

At one point during the House debate, Representative Abel Herrero, Democrat of Corpus Christi, asked whether that group, Raise Your Hand Texas, a staunch opponent of vouchers, was opposed to the measure.

After being handed a phone by Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who is the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Representative Dan Huberty, Republican of Humble and a supporter of the bill, responded, “I have a text message right here that says they were for it as it came out of committee.”

The Times article also mentions that “No. 1 on [Raise Your Hand Texas’] list of legislative priorities is combating private school vouchers,” and describes how the group worked to impose restrictions on the growth of charter schools in Texas. Critics of the group, like the pro-school choice organization Texans for Education Reform, view them as having “obstructed progress” on school reform. Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Texans for Education Reform, told the Times that Raise Your Hand Texas was not “advancing agendas, they were restricting bills, making it “much more difficult to advance affirmative legislation or to come up with solutions.”

In the Tribune interview, Aycock said that Raise Your Hand Texas was not his daughter’s main client. However, according to the Times, Raise Your Hand Texas reported paying at least $350,000 — a not insignificant sum — to their lobbying team at HillCo, which included Aycock’s daughter.

In earlier Times article from February 2013, Aycock is quoted saying that he hands the gavel to the vice chair of his committee and leaves the room when his daughter’s clients have something in his committee, insisting that his daughter “doesn’t have an inside track.” Getting a text message clarifying Raise Your Hand Texas’ position on a bill while on the House floor would seem to call that into question.

The potential for conflicts of interest between lawmakers and family members involved in lobbying has long been a concern for the investigative journalists at Watchdog Wire. An article by Lou Ann Anderson earlier this month, “Potential Public Education Committee appointment raises conflict of interest against school choice,” noted that it “could ruffle some feathers” if Aycock was again appointed Chair of the Public Education Committee, due to his daughter’s increasing prominence as an education lobbyist:

Since 2010, Michelle Smith has worked for Hillco Partners, a firm identified in a 2011 Texas Monthly article as “at the top of the lobby pyramid” since its 1998 launch. Up until this legislative session, Smith listed Raise Your Hand Texas among numerous other education establishment clients. Founded and well-funded by HEB’s Charles Butt, this education policy and advocacy organization is known as a staunch defender of public education and is specifically against school vouchers.

Smith is currently executive director of Fast Growth School Coalition, an organization whose stated mission is “to educate others about the impacts that rapidly expanding communities have on school districts.” FGSC wants more, not less, public dollars for its public school membership. School choice is seen to threaten not only existing, but also future funding.

Anderson goes on to describe the strong support that school choice issues have in Texas, not just among Republican primary voters but among all voters statewide, including black and Hispanic voters. Anderson points out that for Aycock’s House colleagues to be unaware of his daughter’s education lobbying work or the obvious conflicts of interest “defies credibility.”

“Taxpayers deserve lawmakers committed to avoiding conflicts of interest and other improprieties–whether real, potential or even an appearance,” writes Anderson. “The upcoming session and issues like school choice will likely put that to the test. We’ll see if Texas lawmakers agree.”

Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) is expected to announce committee assignments within the week. Breitbart Texas will continue to follow this story.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.

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