The Austin City Council is considering major reforms to the city’s loophole-ridden and poorly enforced lobbying regulations.
Austin’s four-decade-old lobbying law requires lobbyists to register at City Hall and disclose who their clients are. But the city code is murky in its definition of who must register as a city lobbyist, and those who do bother registering don’t always comply with all the reporting requirements. There is also little to no enforcement of the city’s lobbying rules, giving lobbyists little incentive to fully comply.
This week the council’s Audit and Finance Committee will consider a proposal for stricter regulations supported by Council Member Leslie Pool. Under the proposal:
- Lobbyists would have to report who their clients are, what subject matters they are lobbying on and what range of income they receive.
- People who are paid to lobby as part of their jobs would have to register as lobbyists, closing the “incidental” lobbying exception.
- Lobby registration would be triggered by being paid more than $2,000 a quarter to influence any city official, not just the top levels of city government. (Even if lobbying is only a small part of that person’s job.)
- Lobbyists would also have to disclose at the beginning of their conversations with city officials who they are and who they work for.
- The registration fee would be $350, up from $300. But lobbyists for nonprofits would only have to pay $50 a year.
- The city auditor would be charged with reviewing lobbying registration for compliance, and violators could face individual fines for failing to register or disclose information. A person could be barred from lobbying city officials after multiple violations.
The Audit and Finance Committee will vet the proposal Wednesday and decide whether to send it on to the full City Council for approval.
“What we’re trying to do is bring some clarity and transparency to our lobby registration rules,” Pool said, adding that the current law has loopholes and vague language.
She noted that the proposed ordinance changes are largely designed to mimic the laws pertaining to state lobbyists. “We are asking for nothing more and nothing less than what state law requires,” Pool said, such as reporting income from lobbying.
It’s unclear how much support Pool will have from the rest of the council. Mayor Steve Adler campaigned on a promise to reform the city’s lobbying laws and said in March that the state law was a “good guide” for the city to look at. Pool said she has support from Council Member Kathie Tovo.
Government watchdogs have argued that the problem isn’t that lobbyists are secretly buying gifts or meals for council members or staff but that there is a lack of transparency about who is being paid to influence City Hall. And some neighborhood advocates are concerned that people who function as lobbyists but aren’t registered as one can sit on boards and commissions and influence city decision-making. (City rules forbid registered lobbyists from sitting on such boards.)
“(The new rules) seek to capture more people that are paid lobbyists in the system and make it clear they should be registered,” said ethics attorney Fred Lewis, who helped craft Pool’s proposal. “It requires them to report more and have better enforcement.”
City Hall lobbyists who responded to requests for comment on Monday said they generally support the effort to update the lobbying ordinance. But some said they worried the lobbying profession is unfairly getting a bad name.
“We … tend to focus or fixate on lobbyists as the root of all evil,” said Nikelle Meade, a registered City Hall lobbyist who often works on land development issues. She urged the council to put rules in place that are “realistic and enforceable, that actually get us to the goal of real transparency rather than just increasing the amount of paper on the city clerk’s desk” or spending more tax dollars on enforcement.
Richard Suttle, another registered lobbyist who works on real estate issues, said he supports the proposed changes to the lobbying law, though he has mixed feelings about disclosing how much money city lobbyists earn from clients.
“I never understood fully the anxiety over lobbyists,” Suttle said. “And what somebody is being paid … I don’t know why that is relevant.”
What we reported
In March, an American-Statesman examination of the city’s lobbying rules found they are often ignored with little consequence. Some advocates fail to register as lobbyists, while some lobbyists don’t bother filing the required quarterly reports listing their clients and lobbying efforts.