Expect more corporate influence in Texas elections
By EDITORIAL BOARD
Friday, October 24, 2008
The protracted legal fight that erupted after the 2002 election for the Texas House is winding down, and this is the most important result for the state's future:
Although state law has banned corporations and unions from spending money on election campaigns for a century, the courts now tell us that they can spend as much as they want on advertising as long as they are careful not to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
Corporations won't have to report their spending to the Texas Ethics Commission, or even disclose who bought the advertising.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said this week that he had upheld the ban on corporation contributions by securing a guilty plea from the Texas Association of Business to a misdemeanor charge of violating state campaign finance law. Bill Hammond, president of the association, entered the plea.
But the effort to employ corporate resources in election campaigns hasn't been nipped in the bud.
Quite the contrary. We've just seen the start of it.
It all stems from the successful effort in 2002 by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to elect more Republicans to the U.S. House. To do that, DeLay needed to elect a Republican majority in the Texas House to redraw the congressional district lines in favor of GOP candidates.
In helping that effort, Earle charged, Hammond and a lobbyist for the association, Jack Campbell, broke the law because they campaigned for the GOP on company time, which was an illegal corporate contribution to the association's political action committee.
Hammond agreed to the $10,000 fine levied against the association for that breach. He issued a statement acknowledging wrongdoing, but neither he nor Campbell expressed remorse. Hammond complained of "six years of political persecution" by Earle, a Democrat, and Campbell said the district attorney acted only out of partisan rage.
But Hammond and his allies won the larger issue last year when a judge rejected an indictment against the Texas Association of Business in connection with the $1.7 million Hammond raised from 30 corporations to help 24 GOP House candidates.
For future campaigns, corporate executives will have to be careful, but as Hammond said Tuesday, the "right of corporations and associations to inform the public on how their elected officials represent them are completely upheld."
The Texas Legislature enacted its first ban on corporate campaign contributions in 1905. Later, the rights of corporate and union executives and their supporters as individuals to make themselves heard was protected by the use of political action committees, which could collect voluntary personal campaign contributions — but not money from corporate or union treasuries.
But the courts in the Texas Association of Business case have held that corporations and unions have free speech rights that allow them to spend money on campaigns commenting on individual officeholders or candidates , as long as they don't expressly advocate their election or defeat.
So, if you thought the Legislature was already dominated by business interests, just wait. You ain't seen nothin' yet.