Texas State Representative Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) recently introduced House Bill 3219, legislation that would begin to boot the special interests out of public school classrooms. It will do so by barring school districts and local government from using taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying or pay the “unions” that lobby for them to do so in Austin.
Governor Greg Abbott called on the 84th Legislature to “dedicate this session to ethics reform” in his Blueprint for the Future of Texas. It was one of his must-haves. Although, it appears the House is already dragging its feet on some of the wine and dine anti-lobbying initiatives proposed under HB 585 and HB 586.
Shaheen’s legislation is a step in the right direction as it aligns to Abbott’s call for meaningful reform. Even before he was sworn in as governor, Abbott stated how, in part, the “legality of lobbyists for the entrenched interests of school districts” has made that meaningful reform difficult in the Texas public education system. “These expenditures of taxpayer funds to hire private lobbyists to influence taxpayer-funded government officials should be prohibited,” he wrote.
The conflicts-of-interest have been problematic. For example, Breitbart Texas reported on the questions raised over state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock serving as the chair of the House Public Education Committee when his daughter, Michelle Smith, was operating as an education lobbyist on behalf of Austin-based HillCo Partners.
Her two key clients were, Raise Your Hand Texas, a staunchly pro-public education advocacy group that opposes school choice and supports teacher lobbyist organizations like the Texas Association of Administrators (TASA), and the Fast Growth School Coalition, which pushes rapid growth and spending on building new public schools statewide.
Aycock tried to circumvent the conflict by recusing himself on issues related to his daughter’s education clients; however, his daughter ultimately withdrew her registration as a lobbyist and ceased her advocacy activities. Still, in a letter, Aycock pointed out that other employees at his daughter’s firm would continue to lobby the Texas Legislature on education issues, which Breitbart Texas reported.
Recently, the Texas Tribune vilified Shaheen’s legislation, complaining that “Some last-minute tweaks would weaken the outright prohibition in some circumstances” of lobbying. The Texas Tribune is sponsored by the very lobbyist groups that oppose Shaheen’s legislation. A few of them are TASA, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas AFL-CIO, and the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
This is exactly the problem. Breitbart Texas has reported on this deeper issues endemic to lobbyist groups like TASA and TASB wielding far too much weight over the public education agenda.
EduLege Tracker noted that state records showed more than 50 Texas school districts currently hire professional Austin lobbyists, at a cost of more than $1.1 million. This does not include school associations that use a portion of dues paid by districts to hire their own lobbyists and consultants.
Likewise, EduLege emphasized that TASB’s Communications Manager Dax Gonzalez said HB 3219 would make it difficult for school districts to maintain a voice before the Legislature while policy is being crafted.
Meanwhile, that “voice” costs several school districts and their union-esque groups a significant amount on lobbyists during the last Legislative session, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. They quoted much as $400,000 from TASB, approximately $175,000 from TASA, and $245,000 from the Houston Independent School District, all to further the status quo.
Americans for Prosperity Texas State Director Peggy Venable testified on behalf of Shaheen’s HB 3219 and a similar piece of legislation HB 1257, which would impact lobbying in local governmental entities such as cities and counties. She addressed the issue of taxpayer-funded lobbying, which she said did not always exist in Texas but has become a thriving industry.
Venable told Breitbart Texas that most taxpayers don’t want their school tax money going to lobbyists. She said that “simply represents more education dollars that are not being spent on instruction and in the classroom.”
She added, “When taxpayers learn how their education dollars are being spent, they are furious, they want it spent in the classroom and on teachers not on lobbying.” Venable believes that taxpayers have become increasingly outraged to see their hard earned dollars being routed to lobbying efforts.
She called it “an abuse of the public trust,” which the Governor has also said about using state tax dollars to hire private lobbyists to influence the state and its budgetary priorities.
Breitbart Texas spoke with Christopher Paxton, spokesman for Shaheen, who clarified that “Under the legislation, the Texas Association of School Boards would not be prevented from lobbying. HB 3219 simply stipulates that school boards may not spend public funds to directly hire lobbyists or pay dues to a state association of school boards or school districts, if they lobby.”
It would prohibit school boards from employing an individual required to register as a lobbyist under Chapter 305 of the Texas Government Code, Paxton added.
The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram was quick to further a false narrative that school board members are mere unpaid agenda-free volunteers when, in fact, they are individuals who often fervently fight to get elected, and once they are, join TASB, a lobbyist organization.
TASB represents the largest group of publicly elected officials in the state — more than 1,000 local school boards of which. TASB states that one of their primary purposes is to represent school boards when lawmakers make decisions affecting Texas school districts.
“Rep. Shaheen believes that, given the significant amount of state funding that goes toward school districts, and the fact that the powers and duties of school districts are dictated by the state, taxpayer-funded lobbying by school districts presents a major conflict of interest of considerable magnitude. Furthermore, given that many lobbyists hired by school districts with taxpayer funds give political contributions to candidates for public office, there are serious ethical implications for allowing the practice to continue,” Paxton added.
HB 3219 would better ensure that school board members did the bidding of the taxpayers and the parents instead of special interest groups. Paxton pointed out, “under the bill, school boards would be able to spend public funds to support a state association of school boards or school districts, if the group did not directly lobby the legislature. This does not prevent a group accepting public funds from tracking bills, doing policy research, providing information, alerting members, communicating with school board members, publicly advocating for/against legislation, etc.”
It boils down to school boards would not be able to hire an individual whose sole purpose of employment is lobbying the legislature.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.