Monday, November 27, 2006

Legal shakedowns may be a more accurate term for the stacks of invitations on the desks of most Austin lobbyists and a long list of lunches and receptions filling up such prime venues as the private Austin Club, a few blocks from the state Capitol.

Gift giving comes early for lobbyists

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — 'Tis the season for giving, giving and ... giving some more. But this type of generosity, if that is what you want to call it, has less to do with the holiday season than with the approaching legislative session.

Legal shakedowns may be a more accurate term for the stacks of invitations on the desks of most Austin lobbyists and a long list of lunches and receptions filling up such prime venues as the private Austin Club, a few blocks from the state Capitol.

Years ago, legislators decided it would be too unseemly — and awkward — to accept political donations while they were deciding which contributors would win or lose favors.

So they enacted a law prohibiting most state officials, from the governor on down, from accepting political contributions during and immediately preceding or following a regular legislative session.

This year, with the moratorium beginning Dec. 10, political figures are scrambling to rake in as much as they can by Dec. 9. Millions of special-interest dollars will be raised during the next couple of weeks because there is no limit on the amount of contributions. (Lawmakers, after all, aren't totally uncomfortable with their hands stretched out. It's all in the timing.)

Not too late

A partial schedule for this week alone includes three simultaneous fundraisers Tuesday evening at the Austin Club for Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Rep.-elect Borris Miles, D-Houston.

There are three more at the Austin Club on Wednesday night and six at various locations in downtown Austin on Thursday.

One is for Rep.-elect John Zerwas, a Republican from Fort Bend County who hasn't yet served a day in the Legislature but had the chutzpah to include on his invitation the drawing of a train engine and the message: "Choo-Choo ... It's not too late!"

In other words, contributors who have ignored Zerwas or maybe gave to an opponent still have time to jump on his "late train" and make amends. He can't promise them anything, of course, but the bigger their donations, the more likely he will remember them if they come calling for something during the session.

Gov. Rick Perry will have a fundraiser in Austin Dec. 7, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is trying to retire more than $8 million in debt from his last two races and prepare for a campaign for governor in 2010, will have one on Dec. 6.

Many legislators hold fundraisers in their districts, and some pair them with golf outings or hunting trips.

Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, is hosting a pheasant hunt in his district at the top of the Panhandle Dec. 1-3. The invitation lists several "hunting options," topping out at the $2,000 "platinum hunt," described as "extra special."

Now, before any smart aleck asks who would want to even go to Dumas, much less pay money to go there, consider the attraction that Swinford holds for many lobbyists and their clients.

He chairs the important House State Affairs Committee and, unless Speaker Tom Craddick is dethroned, likely will keep that post — and its life-or-death influence over major pieces of legislation.

One Austin lobbyist for a trade association, who asked not to be named, said the practice has gotten out of hand, with many legislators seeking contributions of as much as $5,000, although many tickets are sold for much less.

He said he and his clients, many of whose companies make contributions through political action committees, carefully pick which events to attend. Many lobbyists are fed up with the system, but others wouldn't support any attempt to change it, he added.

When it comes to purchasing influence with policymakers, few special-interest groups want to be the first to disarm.

As recently reported, San Antonio businessman James Leininger spent nearly $5 million this year trying to elect voucher supporters to the Legislature but lost more races than he won, thanks partly to Democratic gains in the Texas House that may have put his goal even farther from reach.

In Leininger's eyes, Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, must be a bargain. Corte profiled the first pro-voucher legislation for the upcoming session. It would create a pilot program allowing tax money to be spent on private school tuition for educationally disadvantaged children from the state's six largest school districts.

Corte reported a $1,500 contribution from Leininger in 2001 and nothing since.

The Legislative Budget Board is scheduled to meet today, and it may provide a preview of just how big a surplus the state will have next year and how much of it the Legislature can use in setting a new budget.

There have been estimates that the surplus could be as high as $15 billion, but conservatives will be pressing lawmakers and their leaders to honor a constitutional ceiling on spending, determined by the state's economic growth rate, which could leave a huge chunk of the money unavailable for budget-writing.

In addition to spending demands brought about by population growth, lawmakers will be faced with paying for the property tax reductions that they and Gov. Rick Perry ordered during last spring's special session.