A Trail of Two Bills

While Campaign Finance Reform was not the Legislature’s primary concern, we have some news involving campaign finance reporting and disclosure.

SB 219

This bill by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) relates to the campaign finance ethics of public servants and lobbyists as well as a Sunset Review of the functioning of the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC). This bill is weaker than what was recommended by a number of good government groups as well as the Sunset Commission staff in an interim hearing in 2012. At that hearing, many good-government organizations testified, including board members from Coffee Party Austin.

The bill was heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee, which voted 8-0 in favor. On the Senate floor, the vote was 31-0 in favor, so the bill went to the House. In the House Elections Committee, the vote was 7-0 in favor. The bill was pretty weak at that point, reflecting a notion verbalized by House sponsor Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who said that a Sunset Review is not the time to make major changes to a state agency (thereby creating an opportunity to approach him in the next session). Despite Bonnen’s preference for a weak bill, most of the 36 amendments made on the House floor on May 20th significantly improved it and SB 219 passed 134-13. Most bad amendments were defeated, including the recurring attempt to close down the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit (which is tasked with prosecuting campaign finance violations of all legislators). As of this writing, the bill is headed to conference where the members from both chambers will agree on a final version.

As of now, the bill:
•    Requires candidate personal financial statements be posted on-line.
•    Prohibits “revolving door” lobbyists from spending their war chests on political contributions.
•    Requires Railroad Commissioners to resign before pursuing another office.
•    Regulates “robo-calls” as a form of political advertising.
•    Requires “dark money” contributions raised by non-profits be disclosed if they spend more than $25,000 per year and contributions total $2,500 or more from a single source.
•    Defines electioneering or “issue ads” for the first time in Texas law and requires disclosure of spending and contributors.
•    Requires officials and candidates to disclose all contracts with government entities valued at $10,000 or greater.
•    Requires “paid by” disclaimers (like on TV) for Internet and e-mail political ads.

If these TEC reform measures are signed into law, our task is far from over. TEC will STILL be the only state agency that requires a legislator-appointed board to approve enforcement actions. Having the right laws is academic if the enforcement is toothless (or, as in our case, gumless).

For an “anti-disclosure” perspective, here’s a Wall Street Journal editorial on this bill. Do you think that the First Amendment grants you the right to $peak so loudly and often that people cannot hear anyone else? Does it also stipulate anonymity and freedom from repercussion? To WSJ’s editorial writer, these stipulations are obvious…

SB 346

This bill by Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) would force 501(c)(4) issue advocacy groups to disclose their donors if they receive over $25,000 during a calendar year. Labor organizations are exempt. This would correct the situation where special interests can hide their names from their advocacy.

The bill was heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee, which passed the bill with a 7-1 vote. It passed on the Senate floor 23-6 on April 16. On April 17, however, Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) presented and got passed a resolution to recall the bill from the House, stating that he changed his mind but offered no substantive reasons. (Senator Seliger suggested that his colleagues had gotten some calls from political donors who were not pleased with the notion of being forced out of hiding).

The House State Affairs Committee ignored this recall request and heard this bill on April 24th, where it passed unanimously and without amendment. During this hearing, committee members loudly proclaimed their support for the measure — in strong defiance of the Senate’s recall attempt. On the House floor, it passed 95-52, again without amendment. The House’s decision not to amend the bill was so that the Senate could no longer touch the bill. So it then went to the Governor’s desk where it awaits his signature. We can safely assume that the donors that called senators on the evening of April 16 are now calling the Governors office, demanding that he veto the bill.

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