Is Killeen’s expenditure of $100,000 a year on a firm to lobby the state Legislature a good investment of taxpayer money?
The answer depends on who you ask.
Some argue that having a constant presence in Austin — both during and between sessions of the state Legislature — raises the city’s profile and keeps city officials ahead of the curve on developing issues.
Others contend that the money could be better spent elsewhere, and that if the local elected representatives in Austin are doing their jobs, they should already be advocating on the city’s behalf.
On Tuesday, Stan Schlueter, a former seven-term state representative from Killeen and head of the Schlueter Group lobbying firm, gave the Killeen City Council a lengthy update on this year’s state legislative session and subsequent special sessions.
During his presentation, Schlueter told council members his group had tracked 2,000 bills that had the potential to impact Killeen.
Schlueter, who hadn’t spoken to the current council before Tuesday, spent quite a bit of time explaining his role and why his services are worth the $100,000 that Killeen pays annually. He focused particularly on the challenges his firm faced this session, including the political partisanship surrounding the election bill.
Still, Schlueter was questioned about his firm’s role, with two council members asking how he could represent multiple cities and still be neutral. One councilman also asked why the council hadn’t been given any opportunity for input during the legislative process. In addition, he requested more frequent communication, to which Schlueter agreed. He also later told a council member that any council member could request and receive information on a bill.
In 2016, the council considered a resolution to cancel the Schlueter Group’s $100,000-a-year contract with the city.
At the time, Schlueter told the council the work he and his partners performed in Austin is misunderstood because much of the work is behind the scenes and requires a specific skill set.
He told council members that intimate knowledge of legislators and the legislative process is worth the six-figure compensation the city pays. He also pointed to several achievements that served Killeen’s financial interests and boosted Fort Hood.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-2 to keep the Schlueter Group on contract back in 2016. But many of the questions council members asked regarding the firm’s value continue to come up.
In the grand scheme of things, $100,000 annually doesn’t seem like much, especially in a $268 million municipal budget.
However, the Schlueter Group has been receiving that six-figure fee every year since 2002 — meaning that Killeen has paid out nearly $2 million for the firm’s services to date.
Has the city gotten its money’s worth from the lobbying firm? That’s difficult to say, since evaluating lobbying efforts is highly subjective and not always quantifiable.
But it’s still worth debating.
For several years, the city used Director of Communications Hilary Shine as a liaison between the city and the state Legislature. Some thought the role needlessly duplicated the services of the city’s paid lobbyist, but others saw value in potentially increasing the city’s visibility and having an extra voice to advocate at the Capitol.
With Shine having retired in August after 20 years with the city, it’s unclear whether the city has plans to pass the Capitol liaison role to another city administrator.
Ultimately, each Texas city must decide individually whether having a lobbyist in Washington or Austin is both beneficial and cost-effective.
The City of Temple has contracted with two lobbying firms this fiscal year. Both work to advocate for the health, safety and welfare of Temple residents and address workforce development and economic issues. These contracts are for $8,695 per month and $5,500 per month, according to Robin Godfrey, the city’s communications and public relations manager.
For some cities, a situational approach may work best.
For example, Harker Heights has not had a full-time lobbyist since its incorporation 60 years ago. However, Assistant City Manager Jerry Bark noted that the city hired a lobbyist during the 86th Legislative Session to advocate for the city regarding the disabled veterans tax exemption, for which Harker Heights currently receives no state compensation. Bark said the city paid the lobbyist $7,000 for his services.
Certainly, an issue-specific lobbying effort makes sense, especially if the legislation in question has the potential to heavily impact a city — as is the case with the disabled veterans tax compensation.
On the other hand, it may be difficult to justify spending six figures on a lobbyist each year, given the fact that the state Legislature only meets on odd-numbered years, generally for a period of about five months.
In other words, even though lawmakers are not meeting for 19 out of every 24 months, Killeen is still paying its lobbying firm nearly $2,000 a week to work on the city’s behalf.
Granted, communications with lawmakers often take place outside the calendar period when the Legislature is in session. And garnering support for potential legislation must start well before lawmakers convene, so building and maintaining relationships with legislators and state agencies is necessarily an ongoing process.
Still, the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. And a lobbyist should be able to point to specific legislation when describing efforts on a city’s behalf.
If Killeen is to continue to pay the Schlueter Group $100,000 annually for its lobbying efforts, the city should get more than just periodic emails to update officials on the latest happenings in Austin.
At the very least, the Schlueter Group should produce a detailed annual report, delivered to the council in person each fall, summarizing the firm’s activities on behalf of the city.
The document should itemize what initiatives the firm has undertaken regarding pending legislation, how many meetings were held and with whom, what strategies were employed and what key legislation was addressed in connection with the city’s interests.
The report should also contain an analysis of all legislation — both passed and pending — and how each measure stands to affect the city, as well as what steps might be taken to mitigate any negative impacts.
Finally, the city might consider moving away from a flat-rate contract for its lobbyist and instead adopt one that provides incentives, or one that is performance based.
No doubt, it’s hard to guarantee success when it comes to legislation — especially with all the moving parts and partisan politics involved. But it’s also hard to justify throwing out $100,000 each year — the equivalent of two starting police officer salaries — unless the lobbying firm can produce some concrete results.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature considered a measure that would have banned taxpayer-funded lobbying by cities. That legislation never made it to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who supported the ban.
Depending on who wins the governor’s race next fall, and who returns to their seats in the state Legislature, the lobbying ban may be up for a vote again in two years.
Passage of that measure might not settle the debate over whether lobbyists are worth the money, but it sure would make that argument moot.