Activists to pursue campaign reformsCoalition to push for more financing limits from 2005 Legislature
By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, June 27, 2004
Looking ahead to next year's legislative session, advocates for campaign finance reform are considering the improbable: Texas lawmakers might curb their appetites for unrestricted campaign donations and tighten a ban on corporate money in politics.
A loose coalition of activists, dubbing themselves Clean Up Texas Politics, is hoping that the Travis County grand jury investigation into alleged campaign irregularities from the 2002 election might pave the way for change.
"You get your best reforms after scandal," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a group that analyzes campaign spending in Texas. "If the judicial system makes the decision that there was widespread cheating, we'll be in better shape to reform laws."
The grand jury is investigating allegations that touch Republicans and Democrats alike but focus most on the Texas Association of Business and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's political committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. The underlying theme is corporate money, undisclosed to state regulators, that was used to finance the business group's ads and to subsidize the GOP committee's activities.
The judicial system has moved slowly so far. Another election could come and go before the investigation, which began 20 months ago, concludes. If there are indictments, the prospect of pending trials might cause the Legislature to shy away from debating changes when lawmakers return in January for their five-month session.
"I wouldn't put money on anything passing," said state Rep. Steve Wolens, a Dallas Democrat who is retiring after having been involved in every major piece of ethics legislation for the past two decades.
Wolens reasons that a Republican-controlled Legislature is unlikely to pass significant changes in state law until the investigations are resolved.
"Anything would be seen as the Legislature taking a position against DeLay," he said.
That won't keep activists from organizing to leverage the publicity surrounding the investigations into a legislative agenda. Among the groups represented at a meeting this week were AARP Texas, Texans for Public Justice, Public Citizen, the Gray Panthers, Campaigns for People, the Baptist Christian Life Commission, Policyholders of America, the League of Women Voters, Texas Impact, the Texas Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause.
"Next year is a great opportunity to clean up Texas government," said Gus Cardenas, president of AARP Texas. "Without changes, government is in jeopardy."
To the advocates, Texas government is influenced too much by a moneyed few.
Of the $195 million spent in Texas campaigns in 2002, McDonald said, almost three-fourths was directed by 384 donors: individuals giving large, unrestricted donations or small groups of individuals controlling money from political committees.
McDonald cites these "kingmakers": Houston home builder Bob Perry ($3.8 million), San Antonio businessman James Leininger ($1.3 million), Dallas oilman and financier Albert Huddleston ($1.1 million), East Texas chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim ($840,700), Houston pro football team owner Robert McNair ($656,000) and Houston lawyer John O'Quinn ($652,000).
The top donors among special interest committees in 2002 were Texans for Lawsuit Reform ($1.9 million), Realtors ($1 million), doctors (almost $1 million), the Vinson & Elkins law firm ($750,000), dentists ($724,000) and auto dealers ($690,000), McDonald said.
To tighten the state ban against spending corporate money on campaign activities, the Clean Up Texas group is suggesting four approaches:
* Prohibit corporations or unions from financing issue ads that mention a candidate's name and target his constituents 60 days before an election.
* Clearly define the administrative expenses of a political committee that a corporation or union can pay for.
* Prohibit Texas candidates or political committees from accepting donations from any group, such as national party committees, that accepts corporate or union donations.
* Bar corporations or unions from coordinating with candidates or political committees in an attempt to circumvent the ban against using corporate or union money in campaigns.
Rep. Phil King of Weatherford is a key member of the Republican leadership.
King said the Legislature might want to tackle campaign finance, but he agrees with Wolens that an ongoing investigation makes it harder for lawmakers to address campaign finance issues.
"I think there's some concern in the back of the minds of people who raise and give money," he said. "I bet there's things we can do to give everyone a brighter line."
But he added, "Until some of this grand jury gets over, nothing can happen because people will consider it political."