Buying Austin: Lobbyists and campaign contributors leave large footprints on state government.
STAFF- Houston Chronicle
The typical legislator or candidate for membership in a legislature finds himself in a situation akin to that of the man who goes to a psychiatrist with a problem.
"My brother thinks he's a chicken," the man says.
"Why don't you bring him in for treatment?" the psychiatrist asks.
"I would," the man says, "but we need the eggs."
Politicians quickly discover that running for office is expensive. They might find the solicitation and acceptance of campaign gifts unsavory, but they need the eggs.
A good example is Dan Patrick, the Republican nominee for the Texas Senate, District 7. Patrick ran a remarkably successful race, frequently railing against wealthy special interests - the gambling industry was one - and their well-heeled lobbyists. He promised voters that a vote for him was a vote to take back control of the state from the lobby's indelicate clutches.
Unlike many other candidates, Patrick deserves credit for correctly pointing out that the state capital is controlled by a few unelected influence-peddlers. Austin insiders readily explain that the reason Texas does not have an adequate, constitutional school finance system is because the most powerful lobbies won't agree on how to slice the pie. In enough cases to make up a majority of the Texas Legislature, voters do little more than choose a representative to take dictation from the lobby.
"It's time for change," Patrick said.
Some changes are more easily talked of than made. They require character, risk and sacrifice from principled public servants. Despite the insightful premise of Patrick's campaign, one of his first acts as the presumptive next state senator from District 7 was to allow a group of well-connected lobbyists to throw him a fund-raiser. Some of the lobbyists represent the very gaming interests Patrick abhors.
Again, Patrick gets points for candor. He acknowledges his $300,000 campaign debt and the necessity of getting the money from somewhere. He said he would not accept campaign donations if there were strings attached. That is a good habit to get in. Were the strings visibly attached, both the candidate and the giver would be committing a crime.
While legislators can sell access and the chance of influencing their vote, the governor of Texas can reward campaign contributors with appointments to state boards. Membership on some of these boards requires selfless sacrifice, but other appointments bestow distinction, perhaps unearned, or allow the board member to regulate his own profession for his own benefit.
One-third of Gov. Rick Perry's appointments have been campaign contributors who, with their families, have raised $3.8 million for Perry over five years, according to Texans for Public Justice. The average amount per appointee was $3,769, but some appointees gave hundreds of thousands of dollars and received highly sought-after posts.
A spokesman for Perry's campaign said the governor appoints "good, capable men and women who share his philosophy and principles." That helps to explain the relatively narrow pool in which many of his appointees were spawned.