House speaker's golf tournament concerns someHealth insurer is main sponsor for charity event as state about to look at regulatory laws
By CLAY ROBISON Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Aug. 7, 2008
AUSTIN — Since 2003, House Speaker Tom Craddick, by lending his name to an annual golf tournament, has helped the Caring for Children Foundation of Texas raise thousands of dollars to vaccinate uninsured youngsters against childhood diseases.
The event, scheduled this year for Sept. 22 at Barton Creek Resort in Austin, also is an opportunity for lobbyists and their corporate clients to rub elbows and cultivate influence with the speaker and other legislators.
That influence may be more important than ever for the foundation's and the tournament's main sponsor, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the health insurance giant, when the Legislature considers revisions to the state's insurance regulatory laws next year.
Doctors and other health care providers, many businesspeople and consumer groups will be seeking tougher regulations under the new Texas Department of Insurance sunset law.
Insurers, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield, are expected to fight significant changes.
He denies event is political
The golf tournament, some critics believe, strengthens Craddick's ties to the insurance industry.
If he wins a fourth term in January, the Republican speaker will play a crucial role in determining what insurance legislation is enacted.
His office has denied that the event is political.
"The proceeds are for a good cause. There's no question about that," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks the role of money in Texas politics.
"But this is a little too cozy," he added. "I think they (sponsors and participants) are buying access and paying tribute (to the speaker)."
Health care and business lobbyists, who didn't want to be identified for fear of angering the speaker, also said they were troubled by the tie between Craddick and Blue Cross so close to the sunset review of insurance laws.
Craig Jeffery, executive director and founder of the Dallas-based Caring for Children Foundation, said the event has raised $1.8 million to immunize more than 85,000 children.
"The only folks I know that benefit from our event are the uninsured children of Texas," he said.
He said he didn't even know that the insurance agency is up for sunset review.
"Our concern here is really about providing access to (health) care," said Margaret Jarvis, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield spokeswoman.
Jeffery, who was a legislative staffer years ago, said he approached the Craddicks about teaming up with the foundation, which has provided immunizations to more than 325,000 children since launching a fleet of vans for that purpose in 1997.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield underwrites all the foundation's administrative costs.
Jeffery said he knew Craddick was an "advocate for private sector initiatives. So it seemed to be a nice match."
A number of other officeholders also participate in charitable events, but the "speaker's golf tournament," as the event is called, is believed to be one of the largest.
Tradition began years ago
The tournament began as a more-modest affair years ago in Fort Worth under then-Speaker Gib Lewis, a Democrat.
Speaker Pete Laney continued the tradition, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst became the nominal host of the smaller Fort Worth event after Craddick started his own tournament with Blue Cross in Austin.
Lewis, who is still involved with the Fort Worth tournament, said its main purpose "is to try to show off Fort Worth." He said the event also raises some money for local community projects.
Blue Cross is contributing $35,000 this year toward Craddick's tournament, Jeffery said. Other major sponsors include AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Direct Energy, Anheuser-Busch, Energy Future Holdings and Union Pacific, all of whom also have interests at stake when lawmakers meet.
Fees for participants range from $500 to $25,000.
Unlike political contributions, the golf fees and sponsorships are tax-deductible.
And the nonprofit foundation can accept corporate checks.
Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said the tournament isn't a political event.
"That's absolutely not the case," she said. "The money is going to the charity. The point of the tournament is to raise money so that children can be immunized."
Jeffery said Craddick doesn't play but "spends most of the day visiting with people."