Sky's still limit on the role of money in Texas politics
By CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
April 17, 2005
As far as I know, no one has proposed a corporate bidding war for the right to rename the state Capitol or suggested that the dome be leased for advertising space. Not yet, anyway.
But despite all the investigations and political debate over the unhealthy role of corporate influence over the statehouse, Gov. Rick Perry has found another way to use public office as a conduit for special interest cash.
His outstretched hand is part of his effort to recruit more businesses to locate or expand in Texas, thus creating more jobs and expanding the state's tax base. It is a worthy goal, provided recruited companies don't steal the state and local governments blind with unreasonable tax breaks and other concessions.
Two years ago, Perry convinced the Legislature to set aside $295 million in tax money for business recruitment, while insisting on deep cuts in health care and other critical programs to help bridge a $10 billion revenue shortfall. This year, he is asking lawmakers to appropriate additional state funds for the effort.
Meanwhile, the governor — through a special economic development fund overseen by his office — also has been putting the bite on a host of companies and other special interests to contribute to his pet cause.
Through their officers and political action committees, many of these donors regularly — and generously — contribute to the governor's and lawmakers' political campaigns, thus winning vital access to those with influence over state policy. Their gifts to the governor's business development fund make the unhealthy coziness even cozier. (Perry didn't create the fund, but he has expanded it.)
Since Sept. 1, 2003, more than 50 donors have given $958,000 to the effort, which recently paid for a television commercial encouraging businesses to move to Texas. Although the commercial is so flattering it could be mistaken for a Perry re-election ad, the governor's office says it isn't running in Texas, only in out-of-state markets.
Although some cities and chambers of commerce have contributed to Perry's special fund, the donor list is dominated by prominent companies and other special interests with a lot at stake during the current legislative session.
Giving $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, were telecommunications giants Verizon Communications and SBC Communications, which are pushing legislation that would give them the authority to raise rates for basic, local phone service in Texas.
Williams Brothers Construction Co., a major highway builder, gave $25,000, and the Associated General Contractors' Texas Infrastructure Education Fund, which represents many highway builders, donated $50,000. Transportation is a major issue in Austin, and now it is more controversial than ever, with the state's increasing interest in toll roads.
USAA, which chipped in $25,000, is a major Texas employer with a huge interest in how the Legislature regulates insurance and restructures state taxes to meet Perry's goal of lowering school property taxes.
Several utilities and energy companies, including CenterPoint, which gave $50,000, also are listed among the contributors. They too have much to win or lose from state tax policy and also from numerous pieces of industry-related legislation.
Wealthy San Antonio businessman James Leininger, a major proponent of spending tax dollars on vouchers for private school tuition, gave $25,000.
And the list goes on with drug manufacturers, truckers, auto dealers, etc.
As noted earlier, none of the above are newcomers to the art of pocketbook persuasion. But given another opportunity to mix their cash with the public's business, they either (a) leaped at the chance or (b) grudgingly went along because they considered it good politics.
Either way, they and Perry have reinforced Texas' reputation as a place where the sky must be the only limit on the role of money in politics.
Spending tax dollars on economic development is controversial, as Perry has discovered during tight budgetary times. But spending public money — with public accountability — on a public cause is preferable to giving special interests additional opportunities to purchase chunks of public policy.