In Memory of Kim Yelkin, Jack Roberts and all the good people we lost in 2022
Texas Lobby King and Team Stronger
than Ever after Passing All-Time Test
"I have always been a mockingbird - but now I'm a mockingbird
with a microphone." ---Michael Hardy January 2023
January 27, 2023
The legendary German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche captured the essence of residence in a book called the Twilight of the Idols in 1888. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
HillCo Partners is a living testament to this timeless piece of wisdom - and the state's most experienced and accomplished lobby shop has raised the bar on powerhouse after fending off a concerted attack on its reputation two years ago in a date rape drug scandal that proved to be a hoax. The firm that co-founders Neal T. "Buddy" Jones and Bill Miller run strengthened its perennial status as the top lobby team in Texas with the way it handled the fiasco that a pair of lying Texas House staffers initiated and members on both sides of the aisle sought to milk. HillCo didn't just survive a premeditated assault that would have been fatal for other lobby firms. HillCo knew there would no presumption of innocence amid a shocking rush to judgment in a collective character assassination attempt that was successful in the case of an individual associate who was tried and convicted in the mainstream media based on gossip, innuendo and wildly unbelievable allegations and lies. HillCo knew that it had the truth on its side with no time to waste. Some of the House's most powerful members were banning the entire firm from Capitol offices based on a newspaper story that had been leaked and packaged in a manner that made an innocent person look guilty as sin. Everything was on the line. All would be lost if HillCo didn't move fast.
There would be no apologies from the lawmakers who'd been so badly played - no expressions of remorse for the damage that they'd done to someone who'd been wrongly accused. The House and Senate didn't let the facts get in the way of legislation to punish all of the lobbyists in Texas for the crime that was never committed. Some legislators had the gall to propose that lobbyists be required to take sexual harassment training for the privilege of being registered with the state. There was never a whisper inside the brass rails on the fact that legislators are no less than 100 percent responsible for a culture of sexual exploitation and misbehavior that they tried to pin on lobbyists in the feeding frenzy that the staffers sparked with a false report to the police after a night of heavy drinking in downtown Austin. The Texas Rangers and the local district attorney announced several days after the accusations were made that they'd been fabricated.
But HillCo Partners - In the final analysis - emerged from the wreckage with flying colors and the high road after passing the greatest of the many tests that it's faced during the past two decades. The firm appears to be in its strongest position yet in the early stages of 2023. Jones is an indisputable choice for the crowning spot on the Texas Lobby Power Rankings for 2023 that Capitol Inside is unveiling here today. The former Texas House member from Hillsboro has been ranked as the leading contract lobbyist in the Lone Star State more than any of his peers since the project's inception on the day that the web site was born 20 years ago. Jones may deserve such an honor now more than ever as a consequence of his firm's performance under fire in what may have been the greatest all-time test for any group of lobbyists in the state's long and illustrious history.
The competition keeps getting better nonetheless. Robert Miller - the leader of the Locke Lord law firm lobby practice in Texas - ranks second to Jones on the list of lobbyists who work for multiple clients and are commonly referred to as hired guns as a result. Locke Lord has been a fixture under Miller's direction for more than a decade at the top of the list of law firms with lobby practices in Texas. While titans like Rusty Kelley, Toomey and Jones were the best in the business already when the rankings made their debut in 2003, Robert Miller has worked his way into the rarified air where he's been on the list for most of the past decade.
Mike Toomey, who topped the list in the regular session two years ago, is a close third this time around. Governor Greg Abbott's two longest-serving chiefs of staff - Luis Saenz and Daniel Hodge - round out the top five. Saenz had been a top 10 hired gun before signing on with the Republican governor in 2017. Hodge served as Abbott's top aide in the governor's office and when he was attorney general as well. Toomey served as chief of staff to Republicans Bill Clements and Rick Perry - and he ranked first on the contract lobbying list in 2021 after a special assignment on Abbott's staff as the navigator of the state response to COVID-19 and the reopening of businesses across the state.
The top 10 this time around includes four who were rated that high in 2021 - Lara Keel, John Pitts, Jay Howard and David White. Sabrina Brown is 10th on the hired gun list this time around with Royce Poinsett and Mark Malone close behind. Howard is a partner at HillCo. Pitts has turned the wheel of his firm, Texas Star Alliance, over to colleague John Pitts Jr. But the elder Pitts isn't riding into the sunset as some competitors seemed to have assumed based on the organizational chart shuffling. Quite the contrary. Pitts senior plans to be more active than ever as a public advocate with added time for clients now that the kid is minding the store.
A former Texas Senate staffer, Keel has been the highest ranked woman on the contract lobbyist list here for years. But Keel's stock has appeared to be on a steady rise since she got out from under Toomey's wing as a longtime partner and mentor and went into business by herself. Toomey continues to ply the trade at the same level despite the loss - having fortified the Texas Lobby Partners that he leads with veterans like Marc Rodriguez and Carl Richie along with Matthew Bentley as a member of a new and hungry younger breed that's mushroomed in recent years.
Howard, who's a partner at HillCo. grew up in the Texas Capitol world as the son of a Texas Senate member. White leads the firm Public Blueprint as a former top aide to a former state comptroller and current railroad commissioner when he served in the Texas House.
The flood of new talent has had the effect pushing the vast majority of names down five to 10 spots or more on the list of the top 100 contract lobbyists at the Capitol for 2023. This should not be referred to as "falling" in value by any means. It's simply spreading the wealth by virtue of necessity. The competition appears to be a product of a surging economy in a state that's had stable and business-friendly leadership for the past two decades under GOP rule in the eyes of the special interests that fuel the lobby. As the world emerges from a pandemic that changed it forever, the resurgence appears to be under way in earnest in the business of the lobby that's based in the Texas Capital City.
Sports Betting Compact Enlists Major Lobby Might
with Best Shot to Pass in Red Anti-Gambling State
The prevailing sentiment at the Texas Capitol for years has been that the state would have to be broke before a significant expansion of gambling would have a shot to pass. The ruling Republicans feared that a Las Vegas-style casino bill would bring the mob to the Lone Star State. Slot machines at Texas tracks posed a greater threat to the state's moral health than wagering on the actual running of the ponies themselves. The idle mind is the devil's playground - and GOP leaders and lawmakers here worried there would be trouble right here in River City if they legalized gambling any more than they already had with horse and dog racing and the state-sponsored lottery.
But Governor Greg Abbott got a visit last year from Sin City - and the guest from Vegas that he hosted wasn't Lucky Luciano's cousin with an entourage of goons. It was Miriam Adelson - one of the governor's new million dollar donors who happens to run some of the biggest casino hotels in the world as a widow who controlled the corporation known as the Sands since husband Sheldon died. The Sands made a name for itself the year before by hiring every Austin lobbyist in sight to be on standby in the event that their services were needed eventually.
Abbott had been a staunch gambling foe until that point. But he saw the light after Adelson came to him like an incredibly generous angel during the night - and he flip-flopped with a straight face and says he's open now to the expansion he'd long opposed. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan indicated that he'd back the legalization of destination resort casinos like his hometown of Beaumont would hope to have. That essentially leaves the far more pious Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick as the only significant obstacle to a gambling expansion in Texas. Patrick faces a personal dilemma on whether his personal religious views are a higher priority than the Texas economy, the public schools and freedom in general.
But casinos have taken a backseat to sports betting at the statehouse in Austin this year - and the Adelsons of the world will be hoping to hitch their stars to that now that the state of Texas doesn't need Vegas money at the time with a record surplus approaching the $34 billon mark. Betting on professional sporting events appears poised to be the hottest game in town with the best chance to pass in the new session thanks almost completely to a new Sports Betting Alliance that Abbott's predecessor Rick Perry as the chief promoter. The coalition may be the most well connected of modern times at the state level - with all of the major professional teams that are based in Texas on board for the push with a celebrity roster that features some owners who are major donors with Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones as the most prominent example.
Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta gives the sports betting group added political cred as another big-time GOP donor who served as the chairman of the inaugural for Abbott and Patrick last week. The Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban and Houston Astros owner Jim Crain are part of the alliance, which includes the San Antonio Spurs, the Texas Rangers, the state's professional hockey and soccer teams and the PGA.
Draft Kings, FanDuel, Fanatics Sportsbook and BetMGM are players in the effort as well as the sports betting push that's culminated in the legalization of online or in-person wagering on games or both in three dozen states with more to come in 2023. The daily fantasy sports sites and their partners in the Texas alliance have only allowed betting on their sites in states where it's been legalized in the past few years. But the Texas ban on gambling outside of racetracks and the state lottery hasn't stopped countless numbers of Texans from wagering on games on major sites that do take bets with headquarters in Canada and other places.
The coalition has enlisted HillCo Partners to lead the sport betting effort in the trenches outside the House and Senate. HillCo represents clients with interests on every issue imaginable as the firm that's ranked first again on the list of Texas lobby teams. HillCo co-founder Neal T. "Buddy" Jones - the highest ranked individual lobbyist in the state in 2032 - has long been Jerry Jones' point person in Austin where colleague Jay Howard is deeply involved in the sports betting effort. While HillCo represents clients with interests in every imaginable issue, the firm appears to be making sports betting an actual specialty area with the work for the alliance this year.
The Austin firm Public Blueprint that top 10 contract lobbyist David White leads will be involved as well with communications and other aspects of the blitz. The list of lobbyists with a state in the fight could grow substantially as the battle plays out.
The University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs released a poll on Thursday that found 75 percent of Texans in favor of casino gambling here. Mark P. Jones, senior fellow at the Hobby School and the Baker Institute for Public Policy for Rice University, said support for added gambling in Texas is widespread across all segments. “It’s not just that a majority of Texans support expanded gambling,” Jones explained. “We found a majority of people in urban, suburban and rural areas support it, and that cuts across racial, ethnic, partisan, religious, and generational lines.”
The share of the electorate that supported casinos was almost 20 points lower at 57 percent.in a Dallas Morning News/University of Texas-Tyler poll during the regular session two years ago. A plurality in the DMN survey backed sports betting, which was legalized when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a longstanding prohibition in 2018. You can bet the farm that Texas will have state-sanctioned sports betting and casinos eventually as well. The establishment of Vegas-like gambling emporiums here will require the development of an infrastructure that could take years to put in place. Sports betting would an instant cash cow for the Texas economy and state coffers as well. It's a part of the state's future like it or not. The question at that point becomes how long Texas Republican leaders and legislators want to hold the future up.
New Breed Emerges with Ex-Top Texas Leaders
as Consultants Who Don't Register as Lobbyists
The New Texas Sports Betting Alliance give the Las Vegas Sands a run for the money in the eventual count of registered lobbyists who are representing one or both to some degree during the regular legislative session in 2023. But the former Texas Governor Rick Perry - for the record - is not a member of the lobby blitz that he's representing as the chief pitch man for the group. It may seem to some like Perry is doing some of the same things that lobbyists do in the plying of their trade. Don't let that fool you. The first U.S. energy secretary under Donald Trump, the longest-serving governor in Texas history is not lobbying for the legalization of sports wagering contrary to possible exceptions. Perry would have to register as a lobbyist at the Texas Ethics Commission if he actually he lobbied. But Perry is simply a consultant with a marquee name and resume.
Perry won't be the only famous former Texas official who's dishing out advice that could be incorrectly construed as lobbying by people who work as lobbyists. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan's predecessor - Republican Dennis Bonnen - appears to fall into the same category as a consultant for interests that hire lobbyists who've signed up to represent clients with the state. Bonnen advised a coalition of business interests on the revival of a school tax break program for big businesses that expired after the Texas Senate refused to keep it alive during the 2021 session. The coalition pulled the plug on the resurrection effort after failing to make the progress it envisioned.
While Bonnen is not a registered lobbyist, he's close to one who is with a former chief of staff in Shera Eichler, who's ranked among the top three dozen contract lobbyists after being listed as a rising star in 2021. Eichler is teaming up in a new shop with Robby Cook - a former state representative who worked for Bonnen as a special adviser during his lone term as House speaker. Cook is ranked among the top 10 former lawmakers who lobby this year.
While Perry is working for no one but the sports betting group, Bonnen has appeared to be pushing the envelope by declining to register as a lobbyist as someone who's appeared to have lined up multiple clients. But Perry had been a staunchly opposed to an expansion of gambling as the governor here with one notable exception. Perry broke ranks with conservatives in 2007 when he endorsed a bill that would allow slot machines at existing racetracks. Perry backed off the proposal amid a sharp backlash from the right. But Perry says that sports betting wouldn't expand the footprint of gambling in Texas. Just the opposite. He argues that it would wipe out illegal wagering on sports here. The key could be to reclassify a wager on a sports event as something other than a bet.
School Board Vaults to Top on Public Group List
in Face of GOP Lawmakers Bid to Bully Trans Kids
Texas GOP lawmakers united in fear of Donald Trump and an angry base in 2021 when they approved an agenda that they hailed as the most conservative in the long and storied history of the Lone Star State. The ruling Republicans never took the time to explain exactly how that works - how a bill can be judged as good or bad based simply on whether it's liberal or conservative. But they have a chance to play the bully this time around with a flurry of proposals that target children who are highly vulnerable and suffering with issues that others will never understand.
Freedom in Texas used to be another word for live and let live. But that was back when the Republicans considered less government and local control to be their foremost priorities. Freedom in the minds of some Texas House Republicans today is a license for taking the freedom of people who are different away. The hard right Texas Freedom Caucus is an ideal example with a pitch this month to Attorney General Ken Paxton for an investigation into the Texas Association of School Boards for offering its members advice on legal issues involving transgender students. The Freedom Caucus request for a probe reads like a conspiracy theory complete with allegations of school districts subverting the rights of parents on issues like gender dysphoria and pronounce preferences. The TASB "has recently issued guidance that will endanger children and encourage school districts to keep parents in the dark," the TFC informed the AG.
Freedom isn't what it used to be in the nation's second largest state. Not even close. But the Texas Freedom Caucus has paved the way for the elevation of the Texas Association of School Boards lobby team to the number one spot on the list of statewide associations that represent public entities at the statehouse in Austin. The TASB has a responsibility to school boards that are elected at the local level to help them navigate the ever-restless waters of a society that is evolving in ways that some of the Republicans in the Legislature are determined to stop.
With the GOP's trans obsession at a fever pitch, the Texas Association of School Boards' lobbyists at the Capitol will face a challenge that is delicate and novel in their dealings with lawmakers who are taking shots at the group. The TASB team includes veteran Capitol professional Grover Campbell along with Ruben Longoria, Hugo Gonzalez, Raif Calvert and Whitney Broughton.
Ex-State Rep Scores High Ranking as Lobby Rookie
Thanks to Senate President Getting Personal on Grid
A number of Texas Senate Republicans have done time in Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's doghouse for an array of offenses that usually stem from insubordination on legislation that he'd declared to be a priority. Patrick chased two senators for the GOP out of the Legislature's upper chamber for different reasons last year.
But Patrick has never gone ballistic on anyone on either side of the aisle the way he's doing now with an outright and unabashed bid to destroy the professional career and reputation of former Texas House Republican Chris Paddie in connection with the power grid's crash during a record freeze two years ago. The Texas Senate president went for the jugular again on Wednesday when he called out some of Paddie's new lobby clients in a tweet that attacked the ex-Republican representative's moral integrity.
"Like @VistraCorp @VistraCorpGA @VistraGroup," Patrick said in the social media post. "I hope @ChrisPaddie's other clients @IncodeIdentity @Jackson_Walker @LuminantPower @txbroadcasters @txuenergy know he has no credibility & not welcome in my office for his disingenuous & unprofessional conduct last session on the grid."
Patrick accused Paddie in the fall of 2021 of trying to engineer bailouts for some energy companies that were among the most to blame for massive price spikes during the storm that caused the independent Texas grid to fail for most of a week. Paddie, a former Marshall mayor - had been taking the lead on damage control in the Texas House in his role as the State Affairs Committee chairman at the time. Paddie drew Patrick's wrath after the House killed an emergency power pricing alteration measure through the Senate in the immediate aftermath of the disaster en route to a burial in Paddie's committee.
Instead of taking his beef up with House Speaker Dade Phelan, Patrick contended without substantiation or details that Paddie had sought to milk the crisis for personal gain with maneuvering that would benefit certain interests at the consumers' expense. But Phelan came to Paddie's defense in the face of Patrick's initial criticism with an expression of gratitude for the East Texan's leadership and character. Patrick has taken a clash over policy to far more personal level now with an implied if not explicit threat aimed at the special interests that have hired Paddie to lobby for them.
Which takes us full circle back to the original theme of the story. Patrick's attacks have killed Paddie up to now - and the ex-representative is ranked second on the list of legislators who are lobbying this for the first time. Tommy Williams - a former Patrick colleague when the two were state senators - tops the legislators who lobby list for 2023.