Link to article here.
As if TxDOT’s lobbying for toll roads on the taxpayer’s dime isn’t bad enough (read about our lawsuit to stop it), local government gets off scott-free since their thievery has been deemed legal by default. We MUST DEMAND and end to taxpayer funded lobbying on ALL levels of government!
Sun, Feb. 15, 2009
North Texas officials want more money for transportation lobbying
But HillCo’s 13 registered lobbyists don’t come cheap. And the total price tag apparently remains a work in progress as the Austin firm tries to persuade lawmakers to approve a rewritten version of legislation they rejected two years ago.
Fort Worth, Arlington and the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition have agreed to pay HillCo $275,000 for its transportation lobbying efforts. The coalition and Fort Worth approved separate contracts of $100,000 each, while Arlington authorized $75,000.
The transportation coalition, composed of 38 cities and four counties, is also asking for additional payments from smaller suburban cities in what it predicts will be a hefty and costly undertaking. The bill, which will be outlined at a news conference Monday, is considered one of North Texas’ top legislative priorities.
Solicitation letters sent to member cities propose payments of $5,000 each for cities with more than 25,000 residents and $2,500 for cities with fewer. The payments can be made separately to HillCo or sent to the coalition as an “addendum” to its $100,000 contract with the firm, said Vic Suhm, the coalition’s executive director.
Appeals to the suburbs
“We need the participation of our region’s suburban cities to muster the resources we need to achieve success,” said the letter from Mayors Ken Shetter of Burleson and Oscar Trevino of North Richland Hills. Shetter is coalition chairman and Trevino, a former chairman, is on the executive committee.
In the letter, the mayors proclaimed a “good start” on behalf of the funding bill but said “it is going to take a monumental effort to get us over the goal line. … While smaller cities can’t match the large commitments Fort Worth and Arlington have made, we can and should do our part.”
Most towns and cities in Tarrant County are coalition members, as are businesses and chambers of commerce.
In the solicitation mailings, Shetter and Trevino noted that the coalition, “in partnership with the region’s largest cities and counties, has engaged HillCo as our legislative advocate to help get this critical legislation passed this session.”
Sponsors of the legislation, called the Texas Local Option Transportation Act, will outline their plans at a news conference today at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, plans to file a bill in the House, and Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, will introduce a companion measure in the Senate.
Approval by the Legislature would allow voters in North Texas counties, including Tarrant, to decide from a menu of taxes and fees that would fund road improvements and a multi-county regional rail network.
The plan, earlier called Rail North Texas, is a reworked version of a bill that died in the 2007 Legislature. It never made it out of committee because of objections to using sales tax as a method of financing. The sales tax is not part of the new measure.
HillCo, formed in 1998 by consultant Bill Miller and former state Rep. Neal “Buddy” Jones, has well-established ties in North Texas. In addition to its work on the transportation issue, the firm also promotes the legislative agendas of a dozen towns and cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas, North Richland Hills, Burleson, Southlake, Irving and Denton.
The state government is prohibited from using public money for lobbying services, but the prohibition does not extend to cities, said Tim Sorrells, a spokesman for the Texas Ethics Commission. City officials say professional on-the-ground lobbyists are vital to help cities with their legislative needs, although some taxpayer advocates criticize the expenditure of tax money to private lobbying firms.
“People who make that charge really haven’t worked in the trenches down here,” said Miller, the HillCo executive. “If you’re down here part-time, then you won’t be successful.”
‘Biggest, baddest partner’
Shetter said coalition officials considered other firms but agreed that HillCo, with its track record for success, had the best chance of reversing North Texas’ fortunes from the previous legislative session. “You want sort of the biggest, baddest partner you can get,” the Burleson mayor said.
The coalition has paid HillCo a portion of its $100,000 contract for transportation lobbying and is paying the remainder on a monthly basis, said Suhm, the executive director. Fort Worth is finalizing its $100,000 transportation contract to HillCo after it was approved by the City Council on Tuesday, said Reid Rector, the city’s director of governmental relations.
The fee for transportation lobbying, he said, is separate from Fort Worth’s $93,000 contract with HillCo to represent the city’s other legislative issues in Austin, Rector said.
The Arlington City Council expanded its professional services contract with HillCo on Dec. 2 to pay the company an additional $75,000 to “promote a regional transportation system,” according the council’s minutes.
Under a contract approved by the Arlington council Sept. 2, the city is paying HillCo $8,000 per month for the five months of the legislative session and $6,667 per month when the Legislature is not in session. The council also authorized $36,500 for a legislative consultant in another contract modification with HillCo on Feb. 3, according to council minutes.
Amassing resources for victory
Shetter and Trevino said the ultimate cost of the lobbying effort on the transportation bill has not been determined. The coalition, they said, felt that it is necessary to ask its suburban members to contribute to the effort, both to raise additional money and to give them a stronger stake in the outcome.
“We’re talking about millions of dollars of economic development,” Shetter said. “When you’re trying to get something like that for a region, you don’t want to do things on the cheap. I want to make sure we have all the resources we need to see this thing through to the end.”
Miller, HillCo’s co-founder, said that he was unaware of the request for the additional payments from coalition members.
“I’m happy that people see the value of hiring us and want to see us paid,” he said. “That’s encouraging.”
Miller said HillCo met with North Texas officials throughout the summer before getting the green light to take the lead on the transportation bill. The company’s lobbyists are working en masse to pass the legislation, he said, adding that HillCo is engaged in the most comprehensive deployment of “manpower and womanpower” since he co-founded the firm more than a decade ago.
“I’ve seen more HillCo people at these meetings than any other deal I’ve done,” Miller said. “We have a big pool of talent, and we’re deploying it as fast and furiously as we can.”
Although elected officials also participate in the effort and make contact with lawmakers, Miller said, HillCo is “quarterbacking the play” and directing strategy.
“We have to persuade people to support it, to find ways to make it attractive to them,” he said. “Or to persuade them that their opposition is unwarranted. It’s a classic lobby deal.”
A fundamental challenge, Miller said, is to convince lawmakers that the 2009 bill is not the same one the Legislature considered in 2007.
“The principal thing we’re fighting is the history of the bill,” he said. “It’s a totally new bill, and we have to re-educate people.”