It's payback time for voucher foesSan Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — When Rep. Carter Casteel worked to kill a proposed school voucher program last year, she told colleagues she was taking a political risk.
"I've made a decision. It may send me home," the New Braunfels Republican said in a speech against a proposed pilot program to allow taxpayer money to be used for private school tuition for at-risk students.
"I'm here to do what's right for public school children and ... make the public school system the best in this nation," she said, "not take money away from it because I may want my little grandson to go to Sts. Peter and Paul because he's Catholic."
She made the public speech fresh from a private meeting with wealthy and influential school-choice advocate James Leininger of San Antonio, who she said was "very pleasant" as he tried unsuccessfully to win her support for vouchers. She said he didn't threaten to unseat her.
But now Leininger is trying to send her home, along with four other GOP lawmakers who helped derail last year's voucher effort.
A physician who founded a medical company — and who has been a big donor to GOP candidates over the years — Leininger is responsible for the overwhelming majority of money contributed to the campaigns of Casteel's challenger, Nathan Macias of Bulverde, and four GOP primary challengers to Reps. Roy Blake Jr. of Nacogdoches, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview.
Up to 95 percent of the challengers' war chests comes from Leininger-related money. Their donations largely have come through a Leininger-funded political action committee called the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. As of Jan. 26, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, Leininger had donated $550,000 and pledged $250,000 more to the PAC. Almost all of its money comes from him.
"He single-handedly seems to want to cleanse the Texas Legislature of moderate Republicans," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which monitors money in politics.
Leininger didn't return repeated calls for comment.
Macias, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and others receiving Leininger-related donations discount the idea he's trying to buy legislative seats.
"It's an insult to me," Macias said. "Second, it's an insult to the primary voters of the district, (to suggest) that they could be bought."
Macias, who is getting 93 percent of his campaign money from Leininger, said the issue of vouchers is a small one in his race with Casteel, but he would support a pilot program to help "those children trapped in some of the worst schools in the state." He said such a program wouldn't pertain to House District 73, which he is running to represent, because "we have some of the finest schools in the state."
Casteel said she's not set against vouchers. But she said she first wants public schools to be fully funded, and that she wants to ensure entities getting taxpayer money are accountable to the taxpayers. She said she would be willing to work on the idea with Leininger.
"This is not a race between me and Mr. Macias," she said. "This is a race about the process and the future of Texas politics ... At the same time when I say that — that I think there is a man trying to buy my seat — I'm holding my hand out to him saying, 'Look. This is silly. We could have resolved this issue.'"
Casteel said she expects to be far outspent by Macias, who as of Jan. 26 had received $182,911 in Leininger-related contributions, out of $198,275. Casteel, who started with $11,741 cash on hand last year, had raised another $139,027 by Jan. 26.
McDonald said his group is considering filing a complaint with the ethics commission about the Leininger-related PAC, citing a law that requires PACs to have 10 contributors before making a donation. The PAC report shows it got money from Leininger and a Midland man who gave $100, plus $225 that wasn't itemized. The $225 would have to come from at least eight people to meet the standard.
A message left Thursday at the phone number of the man listed as the committee treasurer wasn't returned.
McDonald noted, however, that in a state without limits on the size of campaign contributions, the size of Leininger's effort doesn't run afoul of any law.
"Regretfully, under Texas law, this is just fine," he said.
Leininger's decision to fund opponents of GOP incumbents comes despite House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, having backed several of them, including Casteel. GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who supports the idea of a pilot voucher program and has received contributions from Leininger, said he would disclose "at the appropriate time" whether he'll weigh in on any of the races. But Perry defended Leininger's right to support the candidates of his choice.
"I support any citizen of this state to engage in the First Amendment process, whether it's Dr. Jim Leininger or whether it's Joe Jamail," Perry said, referring to the Houston lawyer who has contributed to Democratic candidates.
Leininger engaged in the process last year in the governor's press conference room, across the hall from Perry's Capitol reception room and close to the House chamber. That's where Rep. Jones of Lubbock said Leininger tried to change his mind on vouchers.
"He called me out to meet with him and wanted to know if I would support his pilot project," said Jones, who added that he has always opposed vouchers and that the venue didn't bother him. The press conference room is where Perry appears before media and is used for meetings by his staff and by others, subject to his office's approval.
"I imagine any billionaire in Texas could get into that office and use it on request," Jones said. "I'm not criticizing the governor for it. If I were governor, I'd visit with billionaires."
Perry press secretary Kathy Walt said the room is available on a case-by-case basis.
"His assumption that anyone with money could use the room is incorrect," Walt said. "It was made available because they (lawmakers) were in session. He wanted to meet with a number of legislators who, frankly, were probably on the floor at that time."
Staff Writer Gary Scharrer contributed to this report.