When the Eagle Ford Shale opened, DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler knew the influx of drilling equipment would take a heavy toll on the county’s roads. So in 2013, he went to the state legislature to do something about it.
With the help of the county’s lobbyist, Steve Holzheauser, who once chaired the House Energy Resources Committee when he was a state representative from Victoria County, Fowler was able to advocate for Senate Bill 1747, which distributed $225 million in general fund revenues to reimburse energy-rich counties like DeWitt for their infrastructure costs.
“Steve worked with me, got me in front of the committees, got me in the back rooms with the different staff members, got me in the inner offices so we could lay these things out on conference tables,” Fowler said.
But Fowler and other local judges fear a pair of bills filed in advance of the 2021 legislature could prevent them from lobbying in Austin, making it harder for counties to participate directly in the legislative process.
The bills, filed by Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Representative Mayes Middleton R-Wallisville, would ban the use of taxpayer funds for lobbying by county and local officials.
Amy Lane, Hall’s chief of staff, said the bill would crack down on lobbying by organizations like the Texas Association of Counties and Texas Municipal League.
“The interests of the larger entities may not be the same as the interests of the smaller entities,” Lane said. “Yet all contribute tax dollars for the arguments to be made.”
Middleton said up to $41 million in tax money is spent on lobbyists annually. This legislation would cut out the middleman, he said.
“Elected officials don’t have to register as lobbyists and are supposed to be communicating directly with other elected officials,” Middleton said. “It doesn’t make sense to have Austin lobbyists as their go between.”
Under the terms of the bill, county officials would still be able to come to the Capitol to meet with their legislators and be reimbursed for their travel expenses, Lane said.
But Fowler said the bill would make it difficult for county officials like him to have a say.
“We won’t have a convenient voice,” Fowler said. “It will be commensurate upon us to back away from our normal duties during those 140 days every other year to make our presence is known up in Austin. That will be tough to do.”
Calhoun County Judge Richard Meyer and Lavaca County Judge Mark Myers also expressed concern with the proposal.
The proposed restraint on lobbying is the latest instance of local and state control coming into conflict in Texas politics. In 2019, the legislature passed Senate Bill 2, a property tax reform bill that lowered the maximum annual increase in county property tax revenues from 8% to 3.5%.
The bill was a priority for some conservatives who sought to keep taxes low. But some Crossroads officials felt it denied them autonomy in setting their own budgets.
“They’re just trying to take away power from the rural communities and counties,” Meyer said. “We just like to see less control. Give us more leeway.”
What some state officials fail to recognize, Fowler and Myers said, is that counties are already burdened by unfunded mandates that come down from the state and strain local resources.
For instance, when Gov. Greg Abbott enacted public health restrictions this year, Myers said, it pushed local law enforcement agencies beyond their capacity.
The combination of unfunded mandates and state-mandated budget restrictions can put rural counties in a bind, Myers said.
“We don’t have the funds to enforce that,” Myers said. “We don’t come from multi-millions of funding.”
Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, has filed House Joint Resolution 32, which would prohibit the legislature from enacting unfunded mandates in the future.