When is an influence peddler not a lobbyist?

Recently, the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) unanimously agreed to fine Michael Quinn Sullivan $10,000 for failing to file as a lobbyist. You can read a Texas Tribune story about it (“Ethics Commission Slaps Conservative Activist With Fine“) or read the original TEC order (pdf). The debate has drifted over to press relations as legislators try to decide who should be counted as media in the Texas Capitol (“Analysis: A Conundrum for Texas Capitol Gatekeepers‘).

Sullivan heads Empower Texans. It is widely recognize that Empower Texans has become one of the most influential organizations in the state and Sullivan was paid well over $100,000 a year to head the organization. The law specifics requires you to register as a lobbyist if you get paid to communicate directly with legislators in an attempt to influence legislation. Part of Sullivan’s defense is that he merits an exemption from the registration requirement because he is “media.” Some of that argument is spelled out in a Empower Texans statement (“Why Every Journalist Should Care About the Michael Quinn Sullivan Case“). The argument seems very weak to me and I’m not surprised that they lost on a unanimous vote.

Empower Texans has attacked the TEC process (as spelled out by spokesman Joe Nixon) and the TEC certainly merits scrutiny. However, it’s worth pointing out the TEC is not some liberal bureaucracy. Four of the commissioners were appointed by Governor Perry, two by the Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and two by Speaker Joe Straus. That group seems unlikely to form the kind of malicious kangaroo court described by Sullivan’s defenders.

Sullivan has become living proof that the hubris so common in Austin and Washington is not limited to those in office. It’s unfortunate that a group committed to transparency in government would spend so much time and money undermining transparency in the massive lobbying industry. Anyone who has read the vague spending reports filed with the TEC (lobbyists don’t report precise payment, they report a range of contract costs), seen the massive amount given to candidates, and obscene amounts spent on feeding legislators and staff would have trouble believing that restrictions in Texas are too tight. Over 1,000 lobbyists register every legislative session (1,663 managed to do so in 2013). It’s clearly not a burden that unreasonable.

Empower Texans donors can look forward to seeing their contributions go to an expensive bank of lawyers attempting to squeeze Sullivan through loopholes in the law. That doesn’t seem like a fiscally responsible thing to do.

Whataburger and Net Neutrality

Bobby Hill at WhataburgerI don’t usually write about nation issues. There are plenty of blogs and other sources on that subject. However, national politics recently intruded into my process of updating the fourth edition of our textbook.

Most Monday mornings during the summer, I stop by Whataburger, get myself a Jalapeño Cheddar biscuit (okay, two), and do a little editing. Can you really write about Texas politics without spending some time at Whataburger?

The good folks at Whataburger provide WiFi so that I can check out Internet sources while there. I was trying to get the some numbers on state revenue when I smacked into this digital wall:

Request denied by WatchGuard HTTP proxy.  Reason: one or more categories denied helper='PublicAP-WebBlocker' details='Gambling'  Method: GET  Host: www.txlottery.org

The numbers I needed were on the state’s revenue from the lottery. It turns out that the good people at Whataburger wanted to protect me from gambling. The fact that it was state-sponsored did not diminish their concerns. I also found myself protected from happyplace.someecards.com for “Adult/Sexually Explicit.” (The content I was trying to get to was “Thieving dog apologizes to baby for stealing her toy“) Well intentioned? Maybe. Clumsy and mistaken? Yes.

It was a reminder of why I don’t want anyone between me and content. The Internet has remained remarkably free of government censorship and I’m now concerned about corporate control. I spend too much time sitting through insufferable Suddenlink ads while watching cable television to trust my cable company’s intelligence or intentions. I don’t want to give these companies any more control over my life.

I accept Whataburger’s WiFi rules. However, they don’t try to regulate my food intake when I’m home. I don’t want my Internet provider regulating information intake.

Texas Insurance Rates

Texas has ended up in the top 10 states again. In this case, the news is not good.

The Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel (OPIC) reports that Texas has the third highest insurance rates in the nation. In fact, the OPIC compares the average rates paid by a homes valued between $175,000 and $200,000. Texan’s paid an average of $1,440. That’s 76% higher than the national average.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 7.52.40 PMThe OPIC has a number of suspects in these high costs. Their analysis concludes (and emphasizes): “While catastrophe losses explain why premiums are high relative to other states, evidence suggests they are not the primary driver of recent premium increases.”

They ascribe some of the problem to “inefficient markets” and suggest that consumers spend more time shopping for different policies. That begs the question why the Texas market is more inefficient than those in other states and why company expenses, sales commissions, and company profits are higher in Texas than other states. OPIC is in a position to report these sources of higher premiums, but it is not in a position to regulate them.

The bottom line (for the moment) is that state regulation is not going to bring down rates. If Texans want chapter insure it’s up to consumers to shop around. OPIC suggests using tools online at www.opic.state.tx.us or at helpinsure.com.