Lawmakers propose tougher ban on corporate, union money in politicsLegislative leaders take wait-and-see attitude.
By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Lawmakers from both parties proposed restrictions Monday on the use of anonymous corporate donations like those that helped finance the Republican takeover of the Legislature three years ago and then became the focus of a grand jury inquiry into Texas officials, lobbyists and the state's largest business organization.
Reps. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Todd Smith, R-Euless, said House Bill 1348 would clarify and modernize the state's century-old ban against corporate and union money being used for political activities. Despite that ban, some groups use that money for so-called issue ads that attack candidates or stop just short of endorsing the hopefuls they favor. The bill would explicitly outlaw those ads in the last 60 days before an election.
Sens. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, will carry the legislation in the upper chamber.
"Preventing unlimited and undisclosed big union and corporate contributions which flood the process with last-minute attack ads isn't a Republican issue and it isn't a Democratic issue," Smith said at a Capitol news conference. "It's a 'people' issue that ensures our political system responds to the public and has their faith."
Money, whether it's from plaintiffs' lawyers supporting Democrats or from business interests promoting Republicans, dictates the direction of state policy such as public education and abortion rights.
In 2002, the Texas Association of Business spent $1.9 million of corporate money _ largely from anonymous sources and at unprecedented levels _ for direct mail to voters in two dozen legislative districts and then refused to identify the corporations that paid for the ads. It defended the ads as protected free speech that sought to educate voters without advocating the election or defeat of any candidate because they avoided using so-called magic words such as "support" or "oppose."
Eiland compared it to corporations buying the naming rights to sports stadiums: "We don't need to authorize corporate naming rights to politicians and elected officials."
He added that there is enough campaign money from individual donors without tapping corporate or union sources.
"There is plenty of money to go around," Eiland said. "We don't need corporate or union money to add to the tens of millions of dollars that currently fund elections in Texas."
Although Eiland and Smith said they are not trying to affect the criminal investigation into what happened during the 2002 legislative elections, they said the public demands action.
"The public is disgusted and turned off by these attack ads when they learn they are paid with unlimited, undisclosed union and corporate money," Smith said.
At the news conference, representatives from organizations as varied as AARP Texas, the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas League of Women Voters flanked the lawmakers.
Suzii Paynter with the Baptist General Convention of Texas said anonymous attack ads make it difficult to recruit public servants.
"Their life, their family will be slammed by sham issue ads," she said. "And good people willing to do public service are prevented from entering the arena because of the way money is used inappropriately in Texas."
Smith said the magic-words test, the cornerstone of the legal defense by the state business group, should not allow the use of secret corporate money to finance attack ads in the last weeks of a campaign. He quoted a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision as saying the magic-words test is "functionally meaningless."
"A magic-word test would destroy both our 100-year-old prohibition against big union and corporate contributions and our disclosure law," Smith said.
The bill would prohibit corporate or union money from being used to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, regardless of whether the magic words are used. It would allow the money to be spent on a political committee's overhead _ such as office rent, phones and clerical salaries _ but would bar using it for political consulting, phone banks or campaign fund raising.
Also, Texans for a Republican Majority, a political committee created by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, spent $600,000 of corporate money on consultants, pollsters and fund-raisers, arguing that those expenses represented overhead for the political action committee and not money to help candidates.
Last fall, a Travis County grand jury indicted three of DeLay's associates and eight corporate donors, three of which have settled with the district attorney. District Attorney Ronnie Earle continues to investigate the statewide business group as well as the roles of House Speaker Tom Craddick and lobbyist Mike Toomey, formerly the chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry.
That might make passing the legislation difficult.
Craddick said Monday that he would neither support nor oppose the bill. Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the Texas Association of Business are all taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Eiland said he suspects some Texas corporations will fight the bill.
Asked if he could pass it without Craddick's support, he said, "I think we can pass it without his opposition."
Under House Bill 1348, corporate and union money could not be used:
"To pay for ads or phone banks targeting candidates in the final weeks of a campaign.
"To buy such ads even if they avoid key words such as 'support' or 'oppose' _ a distinction used to justify ad buys under current law.
"To pay for political consulting or fund raising by political action committees.