Lobbying Lawsuit Update

Parties in taxpayer-funded lobbying suit are splitting the difference following district judge's recent opinion

The parties in the lawsuit brought by Peggy Venable, Janice Brauner, and Judy Morris, members of Americans for Prosperity v. Williamson County and the Texas Association of Counties, are actually splitting the difference following an opinion handed down Jan. 5 by 277th District Court Judge Ken Anderson, despite claims of victory from the plaintiffs. The AFP members sued to enjoin TAC from engaging in "taxpayer-funded lobbying," citing a statute that prohibits "directly or indirectly influencing legislation" on taxpayer dollars through dues. Anderson indeed found that TAC had done just that, writing that the association's campaign against the tax cap is an "obvious" violation, citing as evidence a TAC alert that the organization was "nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish." On the other hand, Anderson complimented each side for "excellent briefing" and "hard work," denied the plaintiffs' quest to bar WilCo from paying dues to TAC, and deemed permissible a full-color TAC-backed report on the negatives of the tax cap. WilCo itself is making concessions to its opponents: "The plaintiffs are not alleging that Williamson County has done anything wrong. Their fight is with TAC, and the judge agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that TAC was violating the statute that prevents associations from lobbying," County Attorney Jana Duty said. Even Bob Heath, attorney for the plaintiffs, said that while "disappointed" over Anderson's opinion, both sides are probably "reading the opinion in a different way" at this point. He maintains that his side is awaiting the final order to determine whether to appeal or to decide just how to comply with new strictures resulting from the case. "Some things will be prohibited, some permitted," Heath said; as an aside, he said the issue of tax caps is "irrelevant" to the case, though the plaintiffs made lowering the cap their prime focus.

The lawsuit in its essence may also involve some classic hairsplitting on the nature and definition of "lobbying," a word Anderson himself put in quotes. Heath invoked the 1960s era of reform, when "indirect influence" via lavish parties and under-the-table monies was statutorily banned, to make his argument. But such illegal influence is not the same as lawful advocacy, which includes providing information to legislators on demand and expressing opinions, part of the plaintiff's case that Anderson upheld as proper. Not only that, "The word 'lobbying' does not appear in the statute," Heath pointed out. "[The law] restricts the association from seeking to influence legislation by providing benefits to legislators rather than by providing them with information that can be used in making an informed decision," Heath wrote in an early brief. Perhaps the undisputed problem remains "lobbyists with benefits," and in this day and age, there's nothing earthshaking about that.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

taxpayer-funded lobbying, Americans for Prosperity, Texas Association of Counties, Ken Anderson, Jana Duty, Bob Heath

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