The Texas Ethics Commission Wednesday issued an advisory opinion that will, for the first time, allow political candidates in the state to use campaign contributions to pay for child care while running for office.
The unanimous TEC vote was applauded by Catie Robinson, a mother of two and Starbucks barista who is running for Wichita County commissioner.
“I really believe that this might be the deciding factor for lots of other Texans out there who may be on the fence about running for office,” Robinson said, “so I am really happy to be a part of it.”
The ethics board followed the lead of the Federal Election Commission, which ruled 4-0 in May to allow Liuba Grechen Shirley, a candidate for a seat in the New York House, to pay her childcare expenses from campaign funds.
At least one ethics expert predicted the precedent would create loopholes for future abuse.
“I think the ethics commission really hasn’t thought this out,” said Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who has had a hand in writing some of the state’s ethics laws. “You get money to run for office, you don’t get money to pay for your personal expenses because you’re running for office.”
On the other hand, Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney who serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Thursday, “I don’t have a problem with these rulings.”
Richard Schmidt, relatively new to the ethics commission, agreed with Wood, telling a Shreveport news reporter he could foresee, “a number of ways this rule could be misused.”
Another commissioner, Katie Kennedy, told the reporter, “If it’s something that you’re doing because you’re campaigning [that] you wouldn’t do otherwise, I think we could limit it to that. It may set off a slippery slope but we could confront that when we get to it.”
The Texas Monitor contacted Steve Wolens, chairman of the ethics commission, for comment on the advisory opinion Thursday, but an assistant for his Dallas law firm said he is out of the country.
Robinson had complained to friends that the cost of childcare limited her ability to campaign. One of them, Tracy Herzog, made an in-kind donation of $288 to cover childcare costs, which Robinson listed on her Jan. 15 campaign finance report, according to the Wichita Falls Times-Record.
However, Robinson said she wasn’t sure from her reading of the applicable section of the Texas Election Code, whether Herzog’s donation could be directly used to pay for child care.
The section says candidates may not use campaign contributions for “personal use,” defined as a use “that primarily furthers individual or family purposes not connected with the performance of duties or activities as a candidate for or holder of a public office.”
The code goes on to exclude “payments made to defray ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with activities as a candidate or in connection with the performance of duties or activities as a public officeholder.”
“I have a supporter who is interested in contributing to my campaign specifically to help defray the costs of childcare,” Robinson said in a letter she sent to the Texas Ethics Commission on May 1. “With this in mind, I am requesting an Advisory Opinion from your board on — if the donor is aware that the donation is for childcare — I can accept the contribution and use it for childcare.”
When he was told Robinson was seeking approval for her childcare funding from the TEC, her opponent, Wichita County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jeff Watts, asked the Times-Record rhetorically, “Let’s say I didn’t have children and I just had a dog, and I felt like I needed to go on a campaign trip … and I put my dog in a kennel for a few days. Should I use campaign funds to pay for that, or should I pay for it out of my own pocket?”
“It is condescending, silly, and irrelevant for him to compare kenneling a dog to the need for putting children in daycare,” Robinson replied in an email to the newspaper.
The code allows for exceptions, however, including living expenses for legislators during and after the biennial legislative session. And, “What about the exceedingly common practice of using campaign funds to pay legal fees?” Larsen said.
Watts came around on Robinson’s transparency, telling a KFDX-TV reporter this week, “Catie did the right thing. She had a person that contributed with helping her watch her children while she went to campaign duties so she reported that as a contribution to her campaign.”
Watts remains opposed to the TEC creating exceptions for child care, something he still considers a personal use.
In the case of Grechen Shirley, the Federal Election Commission said it applied something called an “irrespective test” to determine personal use. Candidates may not use campaign funds to pay for any expense that would exist irrespective of their need to campaign. Grechen Shirley needed child care only because she was campaigning, the FEC decided.
Unlike Robinson, Gretchen Shirley had already begun paying for child care out of her campaign fund but said she intended to reimburse the campaign, had the FEC decided against her.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].