Texans deserve clarity on campaign finance
Austin American Statesman EDITORIAL BOARD
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Until the 2002 elections in Texas, most observers thought the state prohibited corporations from secretly contributing to political campaigns.
But that year, the Texas Association of Business secretly solicited donations from corporations for attack ads against a score of legislators, most of them Democrats. The group hid behind a flimsy veil, calling the campaign literature "issue ads" and saying it fell under First Amendment protection.
Everyone who received the TAB mailings understood clearly that they were attacking some candidates and supporting others.
But because the ads avoided using terms such as "vote for" and "vote against" — the so-called "magic words" test — the business group said they were protected speech.
That was just a fiction, of course. The TAB was working hard to defeat candidates that it felt didn't support the lobby group's positions firmly enough. And the TAB called on corporate lobbyists to secretly provide the $2 million needed to pay for the attack campaign.
That flagrant abuse resulted in civil lawsuits filed by the targeted candidates and a grand jury investigation directed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Since that 2002 election, some Republicans have been similarly victimized by political groups who pay for attack ads with secret donations.
Secret donations have become such an explosive issue that a majority of legislators in the Texas House have signed on in support of a campaign reform bill, House Bill 1348. It would forbid spending corporate or union money for election campaigns, end the "magic words" defense and further restrict how corporate and union money can be spent.
It would go a long way toward eliminating the problem that landed the Texas Association of Business in trouble. It's a simple, straightforward solution that doesn't depend on twisting the language until it screams. But HB 1348 has stalled in the House, and the Senate has been silent on the issue.
That isn't a big surprise. House Speaker Tom Craddick won his title because the TAB helped Republicans gain control of the House. Its shady effort helped other powers in the House as well. But Texas needs this law. It needs clarity in campaign financing.
Only transparency can blunt the naked power of money in politics, and this bill is based on disclosure. Free it.