Moneychangers in the Taxpayers’ Temple
It’s true, there are several definitions of the word “lobby.” It can be the first room you enter in a hotel or office building. It can be a collective noun describing a bunch of people who wine, dine, inform, misinform, scatter money, suck up, and generally do whatever it takes to convince elected public officials to, say, veto gun control legislation or give Halliburton no-bid contracts larger than the budgets of some countries.
(In the case of righteous causes, of course, they are the selfless people who provide critical information to enable our fearless leaders to save the world.) Or, it can be a verb, “to lobby.” As in, “Billy Bob, here’s $10,000. Git down ‘ere to Austin and explain to those legeeslators how if they vote to close down our coal plants, we’re gonna spend mill-yons and mill-yons to fry their asses in the next election. But put it nicer than that.”Which brings us to today’s lesson. The verb definition of that word is pretty clear. Especially when used in a state law that says officials of Texas government agencies shall not lobby – that is, shall not spend taxpayer money to try to convince elected officials to move one way or another on public issues. State agencies are supposed to carry out laws and programs, not take sides and act like Don Corleone with a control complex.
The folks in San Antonio who are leading the grassroots effort to stop the toll-road steamroller in this state think they can prove the Texas Department of Transportation has spent quite a few taxpayer dollars to lobby for toll roads in general and the humongous, controversial Trans-Texas Corridor in particular. Their group, TURF (Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom), has sued TxDOT. And what happens in lawsuits? Discovery. As in, one side is allowed to discover a lot of information that the other side doesn’t particularly want out there.
The state, not surprisingly, has been fighting TURF’s efforts to get the data. But a state district judge last month told agency lawyers to cough up a bunch of records.
Ah, sweet justice.
And what did the records show? According to TURF, the lobbying equivalent of smoking guns: invoices showing that various “consultants” hired by TxDOT spent their time meeting with “key Congressional leadership and staff” and various local elected officials whose districts are in the path of the proposed toll roads, the latter usually prior to one of the agency’s “town hall meetings” on the proposed mega-paving projects.
“The citizens have the deck stacked against them when their own government forcibly takes their money and uses it to clobber them,” a TURF spokesperson said. The group released a statement on the newly acquired records late Tuesday, after government offices were closed. Static awaits the bureaucratic interpretation of why those trips don’t amount to lobbying – and won’t be surprised if, instead, TxDOT lobbies to pay for new dictionaries redefining the word “lobby.”