Watchdogs: Donor cash tilts state lawsBy Jay Root, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
January 25, 2005
AUSTIN - It's supposed to be the American dream, but owning a home can be a nightmare in Texas because builders have used millions in campaign cash to tilt state laws in their favor, a coalition of watchdog groups said Monday.
At issue is a 2003 law that established the Texas Residential Construction Commission, strongly supported by home-building interests, which contributed some $9 million to state candidates and political entities between 2001 and 2004.
Several homeowners groups and a campaign finance reform organization are citing the donations as evidence that the state needs to limit the influence of money in politics -- and restore consumer protections for homeowners.
"It has totally corrupted the system. The consumers have lost everything in this," said Frisco orthodontist David Becka, head of Take Back Your Rights, a homeowner advocacy group. "I want to see home builders being held accountable."
Executives at the Texas Association of Builders said the new law is already working well and should be given a chance to prove its effectiveness over the next couple of years.
Home-building interests donated just under $9 million over the last two election cycles, according to figures compiled by Campaigns for People, which seeks campaign finance reforms in Texas. A single home builder, Bob Perry of Houston-based Perry Homes, donated about 75 percent of that, or $6.9 million, the figures show.
Perry was one of the founders of, and largest donors to, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that ran effective but controversial ads against U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.
Fred Lewis, director of Campaigns for People, said he singles out the home builders' donations in part because it's easy to make "the connection between special influence and harm to citizens." He called for limits on state campaign donations, something the Texas Legislature has shown virtually no interest in doing.
In this case, homeowners groups and consumer advocates say the 2003 law removes key protections for consumers by eliminating the implied warranty of "good and workman-like construction" and replaces it with a limited state-mandated warranty.
It also requires homeowners to take complaints to the new residential construction commission, which critics say is stacked with home-building interests and creates a costly new bureaucratic hurdle.
Reggie James, who followed the legislation as director of the southwest branch of the watchdog group Consumer's Union, called the law "incredibly one-sided" and said many Texas homeowners would not figure that out until it's too late. He said home buyers worry about inferior building products but don't typically think about shoddy overall construction.
"Aluminum siding has a bad reputation already. People go into that very carefully because they have that used-car salesman reputation," he said. "You don't expect to have that problem when you're buying a house."
Kristi Sutterfield, director of the Texas Association of Builders, a trade association representing home builders, said the law actually enhances homeowner protections by setting a uniform, state-imposed warranty -- to go into effect this summer. She also said the residential construction commission is resolving complaints quickly.
"It is working, and it is working well," Sutterfield said. "We've got to allow the commission to be in existence for a couple of years and do what their mission is."