House members stirred to action by large gifts in last state electionBy Laylan Copelin, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, April 28, 2006
San Antonio businessman James Leininger thought he was promoting private school vouchers by targeting more than $2 million in five legislative races this spring.
But the millionaire voucher proponent also helped reinvigorate the debate over limiting money from wealthy campaign donors.
A group of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, including three who faced Leininger's well-funded opposition in the March primaries, is supporting legislation to restrict an individual to giving a total of $100,000 in a two-year election cycle.
House Bill 110 would affect only contributions to candidates and political committees in state campaigns, not federal, local or judicial races.
"We cannot allow a small number of megadonors to take over state government," said Austin Rep. Mark Strama, a Democrat. He was joined at a Capitol news conference by Austin Democratic Reps. Donna Howard and Elliott Naishtat.
Three Republican state representatives, Carter Casteel of New Braunfels, Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview, endorsed the legislation.
Jones and Merritt defeated Leininger-backed opponents, but Casteel lost to a candidate who spent $1 million, mostly from a political committee backed almost exclusively by Leininger.
"One thing money can buy is lies," Casteel said of her defeat.
The measure, which probably will not be taken up in the current special session but refiled next year, is aimed at a handful of wealthy political donors. In 2004, according to government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, 87 individuals or couples gave more than $100,000 each, for a total of $28 million.
At $1.3 million, Leininger was second only to Houston home builder Bob Perry, who successfully pushed to create a state agency regulating disputes between builders and their customers.
It was Leininger's high visibility this spring, however, that got the lawmakers' attention.
He targeted five incumbents he considered opponents of school vouchers that can be used to send students to private schools with public money. He was the major backer of their opponents. His candidates won two of the five races.
A spokesman for Leininger, Ken Hoagland, said the businessman legally donated the money to help children whom the public school system has failed.
"He plays by the rules," Hoagland said. "Whatever the rules are, he will follow them."
Changing the law may be an uphill battle.
Gov. Rick Perry is unlikely to add the legislation to the agenda of a special session dedicated to taxes and school finance.
And in 2007, statewide leaders might not want to take up the issue, either.
Rep. Mary Denny, R-Aubrey and chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said she opposes limits.
"People should be free to exercise their views with their money," Denny said.
Denny, who is retiring, said her colleagues are just wary of facing well-funded opposition.
She noted that Leininger's money didn't win most of the races. "Mr. Leininger wasn't successful in 'buying' the election," she said. "Money makes a difference, but only up to a point."
The biggest givers
During the 2004 election cycle, 87 individuals or couples donated more than $100,000 to state candidates or political committees, totaling more than $28 million. Here are the top five donors:
- Bob & Doylene Perry Houston home builder $4.6 million
- Mr. & Mrs. James San Antonio businessman
- Leininger and his wife $1.3 million
- Robert C. McNair Houston NFL team owner $669,792
- T. Boone Pickens Dallas Energy/water investor $644,000
- Harlan R. Crow Dallas developer $508,327