Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District directors voted unanimously to hire two Austin-based lobbying firms for “legislative representation” at a March 8 meeting ahead of the 88th Texas Legislature in 2023.

Directors voted for the firms Phenix & Saenz and Sabrina T. Brown Consulting. According to a LSGCD press release, both firms have a “proven track record of guiding public entities in achieving their goals.”

LSGCD has not officially approved a contract with the consultants, according to the district’s announcement. However, LSGCD President Harry Hardman said at the meeting their services could begin April 1 for the interim period before the legislature returns and run through 2023.

Sabrina T. Brown’s website lists clients including the Texas Economic Development Council as well as the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District in north Texas and the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District, which serves parts of the San Antonio metropolitan area.

Phenix & Saenz does not have a public client list, but principals Billy Phenix and Jennifer Saenz have served as staff for Texas legislators and statewide officials including Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and former Gov. Rick Perry, according to the website.

LSGCD sent a request for proposals at the Feb. 8 meeting and eliminated any potential firms with conflicts of interest, Hardman said. He cited changes in representation due to redistricting in Montgomery County as a reason for hiring the firms.

“We need a strong presence educating lawmakers and advocating for our issues daily at the capitol in Austin, especially in light of our district’s changes in representation, while the LSGCD board focuses on the vast policy work in Montgomery County,” Hardman said at the March 8 meeting. “Our recommendation is solely to amplify the voices of our residents.”

Hardman said the district saved funds on its contract with the United States Geological Survey, and the district's subsidence study is under budget. He said an increase in water use fees “would not be necessary.” Water use fees in Montgomery County have remained consistent since 2020 for the Chicot, Evangeline and Jasper aquifers, and since 2016 for the Catahoula aquifer.

Board members criticize taxpayer lobbying practice

Board member Jon Paul Bouche and Vice President Stuart Traylor offered comments at the meeting after Hardman made the approval motion. Bouche said he had previously advocated against hiring a consultant but now believed it necessary as “other interested parties” had lobbyists working against Montgomery County residents.

“I’m happy to advocate for this because we need it, we need it right now,” Bouche said.

Bouche also criticized the state legislature for not doing more to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying. In the 87th Legislature, Senate Bill 10, which would have restricted counties or municipalities from “spending money to influence legislation,” passed the state Senate but did not make it out of the House.

Traylor echoed Bouche’s sentiments, saying opponents to LSGCD policy were hiring lobbyists and the district would be “fools” not to.

“It’s tough to play ball without bats,” Traylor said.