August 28, 2005
Oh, those lobbyists

I love this opening paragraph to today's entry in the Why Special SessionPalooza Was A Miserable Failure sweepstakes.

The Legislature's failure to pass property tax cuts this summer was largely the result of a breakdown in behind-the-scenes negotiations among powerful business lobbyists that had been going on for nearly two years.

Every once in awhile, it's a good idea to be reminded who really runs things in Texas.

A series of meetings was held of 40 to 50 lobbyists and trade association directors representing a variety of business interests, including electric utilities, the petrochemical industry, hospitals, lawyers, electronics and retail sales.

Utilities and the petrochemical plants, with sprawling facilities that rack up huge property tax bills, wanted some relief, just like homeowners.

Companies with high-dollar investments such as utilities, the petrochemical industry and the insurance industry wanted the state's business franchise tax expanded to cover all businesses at a lower rate.

Businesses such as Dell, SBC and several Texas newspapers that avoided the franchise tax through loopholes and partnerships that had never been taxed were either reluctant partners in expanding the franchise tax or outright opposed it. The partnerships started fighting to stay out of the tax bill in the regular session after the House and Senate offered proposals to broaden the franchise tax.

By the end, most groups had lobbied their way out of the tax legislation this summer. And the petrochemical industry, which had pushed the hardest early on for property tax relief, was left holding the bag to pay it for everyone.

So it lobbied to kill the bill.

"There were a lot of people who wanted property tax relief, but at the end of the debate it was not the same party they sent invitations to," said the state's highest-paid lobbyist, Rusty Kelley, whose clients include partnerships and chemical companies.

This is a pretty good behind-the-scenes look at stuff that went on without much reportage at the time. Here's another thing that I'd say was underpublicized these past eight months:

The impetus for Perry's special sessions in 2003 and 2004 came from GOP primary politics: Republican voters in Houston and San Antonio wanted property tax cuts, and those in the Dallas area wanted to eliminate the share-the-wealth "Robin Hood" school finance system. Those voters typically make up about a third of the Republican primary turnout.

Bill Allaway, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said talk radio drove a "homeowner property-tax frenzy" in Houston and San Antonio.

"There never was a statewide drive for lower property taxes," he said.

Just something to keep in mind.

As long as we're talking about lobbyists, I found this story about how totally unfair it is that the schools got to have a few of their own to be hilarious.

Peggy Venable, director of the 27,000-member Americans for Prosperity-Texas, said it is "outrageous" that school taxes are being used to oppose legislation that she said could ensure better use of those tax dollars.

"Taxpayer-funded lobbyists killed any opportunity for property tax relief, taxpayer protections, education reforms and property rights legislation," Venable said.

Poor baby. Maybe if the schools thought they weren't about to get shafted, they wouldn't feel the need to ensure their interests were being fairly represented.

And just as another reminder:

After testifying about the bills, Sarah Winkler, a board member for the Alief Independent School District, tried to get people in her community to contact their representatives.

"I don't think it's fair to blame the education community for taking these bills down. Legislators followed what their constituents wanted," she said.

Sometimes there's more of them than there are of you. Funny how that works.

By the way, as I sat down to write this, our doorbell was rung by a neighbor girl out selling catalog merchandise as a fundraiser for her school. I so look forward to the day when Olivia has to do that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 28, 2005 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

Of course your neighbor girl's school fundraiser merchandiser also had a lobbyist in Austin looking for tax relief.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on August 28, 2005 7:37 PM