Campaign finance legislation doesn't seem to have much support this sessionSome legislative leaders prefer things the way they are
By Laylan Copelin
Sunday, April 22, 2007
An angry crowd of people wearing blue lapel buttons that read "I own a dog and I vote" recently crowded into a state Senate hearing to object to attempts to increase criminal penalties for owners of dogs that attack someone.
The proponents of curbing the influence of money in politics can only dream of such public outrage over an issue that is strictly an insider's game this legislative session.
At last week's public hearing on campaign finance, opponents of limiting political spending didn't even bother to show up. They knew nothing was going to change.
The sponsor of legislation trying to ban ads financed by undisclosed corporate donors testified that he didn't bother to sign up co-sponsors (he had 90 two years ago) because House Speaker Tom Craddick's leadership team prefers things the way they are.
"I'm offended by the status quo," said the sponsor, Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless.
In Texas, unlike at the federal level, there are no limits on how much campaign donors may give state candidates, except in judges races. In 2006, according to watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, 140 Texans gave $100,000 or more, for a total of $52 million: more than one of every four dollars reported by campaigns. That year, Texas claimed the nation's biggest campaign donor, Houston home builder Bob Perry, who spent $16 million on state and federal campaigns.
The Texas system of campaign finance is based on the concept that voters can judge whether a campaign contribution — no matter how large — is acceptable.
In 2002, 30 corporations tested that theory by giving $1.7 million to the Texas Association of Business to distribute 4 million pieces of mail to voters without disclosing the companies behind the effort. That case remains in the courts, with corporations, most of them insurance companies, arguing that they did not have to disclose their identities as long as the ads do not support specific candidates by avoiding words such as "vote for" or "vote against."
Against that backdrop, Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, chairman of the House Elections Committee, which hears campaign finance legislation, said at the start of the session that he had detected no groundswell of complaint from the public or most lawmakers.
For Wednesday's hearing, only the usual suspects in favor of campaign finance limits — the Common Causes and Leagues of Women Voters of the world — showed up, happy that the issue even got a public airing.
New faces to the debate, the Texas Civil Justice League, a group of 5,000 individuals and business owners who usually focus on business issues, stayed away. Before the session, a survey of the league's membership revealed concern that they might no longer be able to compete in the legislative arena with the high-dollar donations from a handful of wealthy individuals.
"We got discouraged," said George S. Christian, president of the Justice League. "We'd like for something to be done to cut big donations, but there wasn't any widespread interest" among lawmakers.
Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, a member of the Elections Committee, said he opposes the legislation.
"Why do you think we're being bought off?" Howard asked a bill sponsor. "This is what's implied."
Another committee member, Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, said he fears that limiting campaign donations protects incumbents.
"An incumbent knows 100 people who can give him $1,000," he said. "Challengers don't know 100 people who can."
He said a challenger might have to rely on one big donor.
Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, who is carrying a bill to curb campaign spending, disagreed.
"A challenger should have a breadth of support, not one sugar daddy," he said.
Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, an Elections Committee member, provided some levity.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he asked, "Don't you think the wealthy elite are better investors in state government?"
The Legislature does appear ready to require that state officials disclose the amounts of cash gifts they receive, although no one has seriously suggested that officials not accept six-figure gifts.
The issue surfaced after Perry, the home builder, gave $100,000 to Bill Ceverha, a former state lawmaker and Craddick's appointee to the board of the Employee Retirement System of Texas.
Perry gave him the money, Ceverha said, to defray his legal bills after he lost a lawsuit over failing to disclose $600,000 in corporate money that was given to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political committee founded by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay. Ceverha was treasurer for the group.
The only other issue the Legislature may deal with involving political money is whether to prohibit lawmakers from using campaign donations to pay rent to their spouses to help buy houses in Austin. In 1991, the Legislature barred them from buying houses with campaign dollars, but several (none in Central Texas) began paying the money to their spouses instead.