At a time when the state’s lawmakers are asked to continue making laws, most of them are also making money.
During this summer’s special session of the Texas Legislature, the state’s top elected officials collected more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions, an investigation by The Texas Monitor found.
The lion’s share of those dollars went to Governor Greg Abbott, who accepted nearly $900,000 during the two-month special session, which began in mid-June and ended in August with roughly half of the governor’s agenda completed.
State election codes prohibit campaign contributions during the regular session of the legislature’s biennial meetings but say nothing about accepting money during the special session.
Some Texas legislators see a conflict of interest in this practice and abstain.
Most do not.
The Texas Monitor tallied campaign contributions received during special session from finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Under the Texas Election Code, financial reports for special sessions must include contributions received beginning on the date the governor signs the proclamation calling for the session and ending on the date of final adjournment.
For this reason, the data used by The Texas Monitor includes contributions from July 10, 2017 through Aug. 15, 2017.
Of the 183 officials involved in the legislative process, 103 reported campaign contributions during the special session.
“Do I think people are taking bribes to affect the outcome of the special session? No,” said Andrew Cates, the author of Texas Ethics Laws. “But could it look that way if someone takes a lot of money from someone and then votes in a way they would want during the special session? Yeah, absolutely.”
The numbers suggest most lawmakers aren’t worried enough about that perception to refuse the money.
State Rep. Wayne Faircloth accepted $25,000 from the political action committee of Texas State Farm Agents during the special session, when he introduced legislation relating to wind insurance claims.
State Sen. Robert Nichols accepted $5,000 from the political action committee for the Transport Workers Union. He is also chairman of the Transportation Committee.
The vice-chair of the House’s Energy Resources Committee, State Rep. Charles Anderson, accepted $5,000 from both Enviro Political Action Committee and Texans for Clean Water.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick received media attention this summer by announcing he would not accept money during the special session.
But his chief strategist, Allen Blakemore, said Patrick was merely avoiding the appearance of impropriety and would consider taking money during future special sessions.
“I have seen these same stories written about every special session for the past 30-something years,” Blakemore said. “It’s nothing new.”
The moratorium against fundraising during the regular session exists to prevent lawmakers from casting votes and taking money at the same time.
It’s likely that the only reason the legislature has not closed the special session loophole is that this issue is only applicable for two months every few years, Cates said.
In a “140-character world,” it’s easy to forget about it, Cates said.
He added, however, that the issue has become a more visible problem because money is more influential in politics than ever before — and the public knows it.
“We’ve got mayors running multi-million dollar campaigns in Texas,” Cates said. “State representatives have to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars to win re-election as an incumbent… When you have a gap in the law that allows people to put money towards legislators’ re-election campaigns during campaign season… there are certainly going to be those that exploit the opportunity to contribute money to potentially influence issues on the special session… that’s just realistic.”
Lawmakers have repeatedly thwarted their colleagues’ efforts to close the loophole.
Although Governor Abbott has made ethics reforms part of his agenda for regular sessions in both 2015 and 2017, his office accused a bipartisan group of lawmakers of “showboating” when they asked him to add ethics to the special session agenda this year.
Led by GOP Rep. Sarah Davis, the lawmakers proposed a bill to end the practice of fundraising during the special session. The effort died in the House Calendars Committee, where six of the 15 members had accepted money during the special session.
Though Davis declined to comment directly, her office sent this statement:
“Although this common-sense legislation would have advanced public trust and eliminated the appearance of impropriety, it did not come up for a vote before the special session adjourned. I will continue to champion ethics reform during the interim, and I am certain data compiled by The Texas Monitor on political contributions collected during the recent special session will only underscore the continued need for common-sense legislation to close this loophole.”
A similar bill by Rep. Pat Fallon died in committee. So did another version of the bill introduced in 2009.
Abbott’s office declined to answer questions, but did release this statement:
“Regardless of special session or not, the governor makes decisions on what is in the best interests of the state, not those who support his campaign. The most important standard is to avoid any conflict of interest and follow the letter and spirit of the law. That is being done.”
Among top fundraisers during the special session, Speaker Joe Straus ranked second, bringing in about $58,000.
House members collected more than $400,000, with Republicans accounting for about $285,000 and Democrats the remaining $117,000.
Senate members collected $245,000. Nearly $156,000 went to Republicans and $89,000 to Democrats.
Amounts of campaign contributions collected during the special session for all 103 legislators who participated can be viewed in the table below.
|House||D||Lucio III, Eddie||$7,500.00|
Clarification: A previous version of this story did not detail the methodology we used to tabulate the special session campaign contributions. The Texas Monitor prizes accuracy in its reporting and welcomes information about errors or omissions that warrant correction.