Friday, April 29, 2005

Central casting couldn't have found anyone better than Austin Rep. Terry Keel to scuttle a desperate, rare gambit to save legislation barring corporate and union money from campaigns.

Killed on House floor, measure may be dead for the session.

By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Friday, April 29, 2005

Central casting couldn't have found anyone better than Austin Rep. Terry Keel to scuttle a desperate, rare gambit to save legislation barring corporate and union money from campaigns.

The Republican lawmaker was a co-sponsor of the legislation. He had urged Speaker Tom Craddick, viewed by some as a stumbling block, to support House Bill 1348. And he had defended his former boss, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, as he investigated corporate influence in Texas elections.

But on Thursday, a fiery Keel turned broad support for the legislation into a lopsided defeat by making the brief, emotional debate a referendum on Craddick and the legislative process. At one point, he even asked that the microphone of his opponents be turned off as they tried to interrupt him to defend themselves.

The House, by a 95-36 vote, rejected attempts to pull House Bill 1348 out of the Elections Committee, where it faced extinction, and onto the floor for a quick, midafternoon vote. The rare motion, according to the House parliamentarian, had been used only five times since the 1970s, almost always without success.

"I think this stunt kills it," Keel said of the bill's future.

The bill's co-authors, Craig Eiland, D–Galveston, and Todd Smith, R-Euless, said the legislation, which had counted 93 co-sponsors only days earlier, was dead even before Thursday's effort to rescue it. Smith said the defeat means the state's "corrupt" campaign system will continue.

"Unlimited, undisclosed corporate and union corporations are determining who is elected in this state," he said. "Members who occasionally say no to wealthy, economic interests are vulnerable, while members who do not are bullet-proof."

For almost an hour Thursday afternoon the emotions in the House boiled as they did two years ago when Republicans routinely rolled over Democrats on issues from congressional redistricting to curbs on lawsuits against businesses.

"It was reminiscent of 2003," said Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

Rep. Mary Denny, the Elections Committee chairwoman, has said the bill probably will die on a 4-3 committee vote as early as Monday.

Although almost two-thirds of the House co-sponsored the bill, supporters considered its passage a long shot because Craddick, R-Midland, and several of his lieutenants, including Hughes and Denny, were helped either directly or indirectly in the 2002 elections by corporate money, the type of spending that would be banned under the bill.

Shortly after lunch Thursday, Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, brought the motion and urged members to rescue the bill from demise in the Elections Committee.

Merritt recounted how Americans for Job Security, an out-of-state group, used undisclosed corporate money to attack him during a special election for the Texas Senate in 2004. He warned lawmakers that they could be the next victims of anonymous attack ads. "It's not ethical. It's not correct," Merritt said. "We want full disclosure."

Eiland urged lawmakers to use the vote as a referendum on the bill because "this may be the last time you see it."

Keel said he supported the bill until its supporters began linking Craddick to Earle's investigations.

He accused Merritt of doing the bidding of Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Waco Democrat who leads the House Democratic Caucus, and Dunnam of orchestrating "a PR stunt" to the detriment of Craddick and the House. When Merritt and Dunnam tried to interrupt Keel to defend themselves, Keel refused to yield the floor and asked that their microphone be turned off.

After the vote, Merritt insisted that he was speaking for himself, and Dunnam denied attacking Craddick over the bill.

Craddick, who insisted he was neutral on the bill, had been drawn into the debate because of what happened during 2002 legislative elections.

Asked about Keel's claim that Thursday's motion was "a partisan shot" at Craddick, the speaker said, "I don't know. It's the process. We let it work."

State law generally prohibits corporate and union money from being used in campaign activity. But the Texas Association of Business and the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee spent corporate money, either on direct mail or consultants, fund-raisers and phone banks, in an effort to elect a Republican majority in the House in 2002. The groups deny wrongdoing.

Earle, a Democrat, has been investigating for more than two years. A grand jury has indicted three officials with Texans for a Republican Majority, and prosecutors continue to investigate whether the committee illegally helped Craddick be elected speaker.

Eiland and Smith proposed barring corporate or union money from being spent on communications that targeted a candidate and the electorate in the final weeks of a campaign.

Opposition surfaced from abortion opponents, gun rights supporters and state GOP Chairwoman Tina Benkiser who argued that groups' voters guides and newsletters could be caught up in the new prohibitions. Even after Smith and Eiland offered amendments to exempt those examples, opposition continued.