in Houston, Texas

Former state Rep. Fred Hill now lobbying on behalf of cities, counties

Thursday, Feb 19, 2009, 12:14PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles

Fred Hill has clout.

With 20 years' experience in the state legislature, the Richardson Republican once talked his fellow House members out of passing a property tax cap that both the governor and the famously autocratic House Speaker Tom Craddick supported. He chaired the state House Local Government Ways and Means Committee. The Texas Municipal League inducted him into its hall of fame for state legislators.

Hill may have left the legislature in early January, but he still has clout. And he's still being paid with Texans' tax dollars.

That's because he's the latest lawmaker to go through Capitol Hill's revolving door and become a lobbyist. Hill is now representing a handful of north Texas city and town governments in Austin this year, work for which he would be paid between $395,000-$699,990 this year. Also among his clients are the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system and two local government groups who collect dues from their member local governments.

In making the change, he's joined a small army of former legislators-turned-lobbyists at the statehouse. A 2005 study by the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Public Integrity found 70 former legislators lobbying then at the Texas capitol, more than in any other state.

Critics of the revolving door say voters and taxpayers are unable to tell when lawmakers stop thinking like lawmakers and start thinking like someone on the hunt for a job. And in Hill’s case – like many others who have waltzed through the revolving door – he went hunting for work from entities that had much to gain or lose from the actions on his committee: local governments.

Hill began thinking about a lobbying job in the months before he left the legislature. He announced around the middle of last year that he wouldn’t seek re-election. He registered his firm, a limited liability corporation called Solutions for Local Control, with the Secretary of State's office on Nov. 20, records show.

In most cases, lawmakers don’t start lobbying duties until their replacement is sworn in. This year, that would have been Jan. 13. But by Jan. 3, the former chairman of the House Local Government Ways and Means Committee was asking for business from local governments.

That’s OK, according to Hill -- he says he formally resigned via letter to the governor on Jan. 2.

“This doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Peggy Venable, who leads the Texas branch of Americans For Prosperity, a fiscally conservative taxpayer watchdog. “When did he stop being a representative for his constituents and start being a representative for his lobbying interests?”

Hill says he’s not a lobbyist in the traditional sense. He’s signed on to work for local governments because he believes in fighting for taxpayers and for local control.

"Local governments don't get any money from the state. They don't ask for any money from the state. All they want to be is left alone so that they can do their job," Hill said Friday by cellphone as he drove back from Austin to Richardson.

"That's it. That's what it boils down to -- boils down to local control. I'm not down in Austin asking anybody to give any money to anybody. I'm just simply there to try to protect local governments and keep them from having to come up with the money to mandates simply because some legislator thought it was a great idea. We constantly get these great ideas without the money to fund them."

'We are on the front lines'

Hill is registered as one of 13 lobbyists to serve the city of Dallas at the statehouse this year. For the city of Coppell, he'll be one of three lobbyists. But for Richardson, Allen, Flower Mound, Farmers Branch and Addison, Hill is their one and only lobbyist, according to state Ethics Commission records.

Click here to see former state Rep. Fred Hill's 2009 lobbyist registration paperwork (via Scribd.com).

"We were very interested in the fact that he is very familiar with cities and the responsibilities of cities and the basic services that we have to provide," said Peter Vargas, the city manager in Allen. "And, so, we felt that he had the knowledge, if you will, to be able to explain to someone who, perhaps, doesn't have that background" about the real effects that bills will have on city governments -- sometimes with "unintended consequences" that impose onerous burdens on cities, Vargas said.

One example he cited: A recent state law that imposed new requirements on safety inspections for open irrigation trenches.

"We have seen over the last two or three sessions that municipal authority really has been eroded," Vargas said. "And that is a concern -- because we feel, here at the local level, that our mayor, our city council, our staff, are directly involved with the delivery of service. We are on the front lines."

The Allen city council signed off on retaining Hill's services on Jan. 26, Vargas said. The city will pay Hill $3,000 a month for a one-year contract, Vargas said.

Flower Mound is listed on Hill's lobbyist registration paperwork as paying Hill a prospective $10,000-$25,000 this year. Allen, Coppell, Dallas and Farmers Branch are down for $25,000-$49,000 each. The town of Addison is listed as paying $50,000-$99,999, as are DART and the state Conference of Urban Counties. The Texas Association of Counties is paying $150,000-$199,000.

The city of Richardson, where Hill was once a school board member, has retained Hill on a two-year contract paying $6,250 per month, or $75,000 per year, Assistant City Manager Michelle Thames wrote in an e-mail response to Texas Watchdog's questions. Among the city's legislative priorities this year: Creating more "tier one" universities, creating a system by which the state gas tax can increase with economic growth, and fending off legislators' attempts to stop cities from installing "red-light" cameras.

It was mid-2008 when Hill announced he wouldn't run for re-election again, clearing the way for a general election race in November that was won by Republican Angie Chen Button. Hill said some people approached him soon after his announcement to ask him about lobbying, but he said he told them he'd have to talk about that after he'd left the legislature. (And he'd sold his Austin condo after the last legislative session went home in mid-2007, he said.)

Click here to see former state Rep. Fred Hill's Nov. 20 paperwork to the Texas Secretary of State's office, registering his firm, Solutions for Local Control LLC.

Though his term would have expired on Jan. 13, when Button was sworn in, Hill said he turned in his resignation to Gov. Rick Perry's office on Jan. 2. The next day, he sent a letter to Vargas about lobbying for the city of Allen, and he told Texas Watchdog that he did not make or enter into any lobbying commitments prior to Jan. 3.

"I am limiting my services to local government issues and issues of transportation and taxation. These are the areas that I have focused upon during my twenty years in the legislature and am known for among my legislative colleagues," wrote to Vargas. He wrote that some lobbyists might have charged the city of Allen a higher price, but "I think I can give you the type of representation that you desire for a relatively modest fee."

Click here to see former state Rep. Fred Hill's Jan. 3, 2009 letter to Allen City Manager Peter Vargas.

'On your dime'

Dallas officials also wanted to tap Hill's experience -- and the city sought him out sometime this month, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said. "I respect him, and I think he's knowledgeable." He'll be paid between $16,000-$17,000, and the city is still finishing up the paperwork to formally hire him, she said.

Dallas basically has one full-time lobbyist who lives in Austin. Just about everyone else, it hires by contract and pays a relatively small amount, she said: "We like to keep our operation lean and mean; we hire lobbyists specifically for certain areas."

Hill's move from legislator to lobbyist has drawn additional ire from some who criticized his track record in the state House. From MJSamuelson on the Texas Magazine blog:

... Taxpayers in the communities currently paying Fred Hill to lobby on their behalf need to ask questions about this. They need to know exactly how much Fred Hill is being paid (the TEC filings only reveal a range for salary/compensation). And taxpayers need to ask themselves if they need Fred Hill in Austin anymore at all; after all, in all these places, there are elected state officials who can be the "voice" in Austin for the cities, towns, and counties as well as the people. After all, isn't it the people whose interests should be at the heart of everything that goes through the legislature?

Hill has a different take on his work.

"A lot of the things that we do in our local governments benefit the whole state," such as economic development projects intended to lure jobs, he said. "And that's why I'm doing it, because I recognize that ... I know how important local government is to our state, and they simply need an advocate. There are so many ideas floating around, and, generally speaking, everyone of them has something to do with curtailing the ability of local government to do its job."

About 1,200 bills filed each session would hurt cities or counties, Hill said. He believes the state has traditionally kept its taxes low by passing on costs to cities and counties, who are then stuck having to pay taxes to make up the difference.

But won't some people say, Aren't our legislators supposed to be advocates for us, without the public having to also pay lobbyists?

"You are right. You are correct about that. But, you realize that over 6,000 bills are filed every legislative session, and that it's almost impossible for any legislator to keep up with everything that's going on," he said, pointing out that there are lobbyists in Austin representing media organizations (such as the Texas Press Association), accountants, teachers and numerous other professions.

In such an environment, cities and counties need an advocate, too: "I'm trying to protect local government so that it can do its job without restrictions, so that people in their local communities can make the decisions on what their local government does. I don't want those decisions to be made in Austin ... I want those local taxpayers to be able to make those decisions."

Cooling off?

Texas is one of 19 states that don't impose a "cooling off" period on lawmakers who leave government jobs to lobby, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

The purpose of such a law, wrote Peggy Kerns, director of the NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government, "is to break the connection between the legislator's professional duties and the interest of specific groups or organizations."

Kerns broke down the arguments for a report issued earlier this year:

Proponents Say. Proponents of these laws say they are needed to keep former legislators from using their government connections to benefit themselves, their clients or their business interests after they leave office. Allowing a period of time before accepting a lobbying job can lessen any suspicion that a legislator is beholden to any special interest. They worry that legislators might use their current office to set up future jobs. In doing so, those legislators might try to ingratiate themselves with firms by cozying up to their interests. This appearance factor is important, proponents say, to curb the public's skepticism about public officials.

Opponents Say. Critics say that revolving door provisions are unfair to legislators. They add that, in fact, legislators who have good character and qualifications-who have proved themselves under fire-make effective lobbyists. Among their arguments is that only the better legislator who is trustworthy and reliable is able to become a successful lobbyist. Lawmakers acquire a expertise in specific policy areas and understand the political process. Often the relationships they have with their colleagues give them access that may not be immediately available to someone else.

Texas has imposed a cooling-off period for people leaving the executive branch -- but not for the legislature.

It's not that no one is trying to get such a law passed, as the Dallas Morning News reported earlier this year. Some people are trying -- but the bills get killed.

A 2007 bill by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would have made the waiting period for the governor's staff a requirement of state law instead of an office policy never emerged from the Senate State Affairs committee.

Attempts to rein in ex-legislators have met similar fates. In 2007, Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi, filed bills to mandate a two-year wait. Both bills died in the House Elections committee.

Hill said he doesn't think it's needed.

"I don't have any reason to think that it's necessary for us to have that. Because, you know, you are a citizen of some city -- and I don't even know where you live -- and you're certainly a citizen of some county, and you need your rights protected just as anybody else that lives in this state. And that's all I'm trying to do."

The Morning News' editorial board hit hard on lawmakers becoming lobbyists in a Sunday editorial that was pegged not to Hill but to the newspaper's coverage insurance companies' considerable power on Capitol Hill and their coziness with legislators:

... Current law permits a state legislator to leave office and immediately lobby former colleagues and it allows lawmakers to receive unlimited amounts in campaign contributions from any donor.

These are extraordinary loopholes – even in pro-business Texas. Former state agency executive directors and board members face a two-year prohibition on lobbying their former agencies. The governor's senior staff isn't permitted to lobby the governor on any issue for one year after an employee's departure. And lower-level staff members can't lobby the office for one year regarding issues they handled while with the governor ...

Legislators should be required to wait at least two years before being allowed to lobby. Lobbyists should be required to extensively detail their business connections, namely past ties to the Legislature, the name of their firm and the specific legislation they seek to influence.

Click here to see the complete list of Texas' registered lobbyists, and their clients, for 2009.

Texas Watchdog Staff Writers Matt Pulle, Lee Ann O'Neal and Trent Seibert contributed to this story.

Revolving door picture by flickr user Joe Shlabotnik, used via the Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Peggy Venable
Thursday, 02/19/2009 - 03:38PM

Fred Hill's activities may be legal, but it is questionable if they are ethical. It appears he didn't even slow down to go through a revolving door but simply got on the express elevator straight to the mega-lottery-lobby winners circle. What is most egregious is that these taxing entities are paying his lobby fees with taxpayer dollars. And if he continues to take the positions he did in the legislature, he will be working to deny taxpayer protections, to defeat lowering appraisal caps and to defeat any spending limit which would allow taxpayers to determine how much government they want and are willing to pay for. It's a disappointment to taxpayers across the state, but certainly to those who are footing the bill for his fees...and that includes most of us since most Texas counties are members of the Texas Association of Counties or the urban counties association he is lobbying for now.

Jennifer Peebles
Thursday, 02/19/2009 - 03:48PM

Peggy,

Thank you for writing in -- and for talking to us for this story. (And readers who want to read more from Peggy can go over to The Voice of the Taxpayer blog at http://txpayervoice.blogspot.com/).

Take care,

Jennifer P.

jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

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