State Sen. Joan Huffman was freshly re-elected at the end of 2014 when she came to Austin for a series of meetings. It was a time of year when hotel deals for savvy travelers are readily available.
But Huffman, a Republican from Houston, chose to spend her nights at the Four Seasons hotel — at a rate of $521 nightly. The stays were made between Nov. 24 and Dec. 18, with her donors footing the bill out of Huffman’s sizable campaign fund, the 37th highest in the statehouse at $454,000 after peaking at $962,000 in 2014.
State law does not require she specify the occasion for the expenditure.
Five days after her last stay, Huffman spent $9,138 on furniture for the apartment she would take for the upcoming legislative session. The furniture, which does not have to be itemized, came from West Elm, an establishment that also offers home styling, design and installation.
Her new place was at the Whitley Apartments, a luxury high-rise in the middle of downtown Austin. She moved in on Jan. 6, 2015, and through December 2016, spent $45,565 on rent at the building over 16 months, paying on it after session and for several months during 2016, when the legislature did not meet.
The average monthly payout of $2,847 got her a two-bedroom with more than 1,200 square feet of living space. When she left Austin for a few months, she paid $250 a month to store the furnishings that she had used in her former apartment.
Huffman’s office did not respond to an interview request from The Texas Monitor.
Lawmakers will pay more than double the typical rental rates while working in Austin during the biennial legislative session, records show. While staying in often-pricey condos, they buy upscale furnishings and afford themselves luxuries far beyond those of their constituents. Among their purchases: $1,200 mattresses, and $1,600 in moving fees.
The perks of holding office include a campaign fund that can build into the millions giving them a power of splendor beyond their regular income.
In many cases, elected officials face little opposition, spending meager amounts on campaigning. This leaves ample campaign cash available for expenses that are not tied to their position, like extravagant travel, high-end gifts for staff and expensive dinners described to the public as staff events.
The candidates are enabled by donors — lobbyists, political action committees and lawyers, for the most part — seeking favors. And someone sitting in a hotel suite or luxury condo is certainly indebted to the person who put them there, claim foes of the state’s fairly unrestricted campaign finance spending statutes.
There are 181 lawmakers who have to be in Austin for 140 days every other year, plus numerous other trips to the statehouse for committee meetings and assorted duties they perform to earn $600 a month, or $7,200 annually. When they are in session, legislators are paid a $190 per diem, up 44 percent from $132 a day 10 years ago.
“We have to have a place to live when we are in Austin and some live high on the hog,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston). “We get a per diem, and that’s what the money is for, to live.”
State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) must have been feeling flush when he signed on to stay at the Gables Park Tower last session. He paid $15,803 to stay at the downtown high-rise, or $3,160 a month. In 2011, Huberty — who is vice president of a realty company in Houston — stayed at the Monarch for a much less pricey $2,201 a month. In 2013, he paid $2,100 monthly.
On the other hand, State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, stayed in the modest West Avenue Apartments for $1,400 a month in 2011.
Rents in Austin have increased slightly overall in the past five years. A one-bedroom apartment averages $1,250 a month while a two-bedroom comes in around $1,650.
When Huffman was paying $3,000 a month, the median rent in the upscale area was $1,900.
“The per diem is supposed to be for housing and food while they are in session,” said Fred Lewis, a former assistant attorney general who has worked with the state’s campaign finance laws. “I don’t think the public understands that the lifestyle of their legislators is being underwritten by the lobbyists.”
It’s a five-minute walk from the steps of the Texas Capitol to the Austin Club, and it shows on the expenditures of lawmakers.
Since 2007, legislators have picked up the tab for $98,000 for food at the exclusive eatery. That figure includes 309 visits — an average of $317 per meal. On top of that, throw in another grand or so just for parking, despite the fact that many of these dinners have taken place during session.
The descriptions of the visits, which must be reported on disclosure forms to the state, vary, from “constituent entertainment” to “officeholder meeting to discuss issues.” “Staff” is sometimes thrown into that description.
Rep. Huberty has spent over $3,500 at the Austin Club since 2011, with an average tab of $502. Former state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) who stepped down in January after 20 years, was a frequent flyer at the Austin Club. He rang up an average bill of $860 on his 11 annual trips to the club between 2007 and 2016.
But for sheer average bill size, the III Forks, less than a mile’s walk from the Austin Club, ranks No. 1 in the top 10 political eateries at $460 a pop. State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Denton) in November took her staff there for a $2,521 meal. The year before, she plunked down $1,073 in campaign cash for a nosh she described as “meals for officeholder meeting.”
Her office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The leader in food spending is House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), who since 2007 has spent $33,381 on dining at 10 of the finest restaurants in Austin frequented by lawmakers. Of that figure, $13,599 was shelled out at III Forks, including an $8,317 meal in September 2011, two years after he became speaker. He has not dined at III Forks with campaign funds since 2014, when he spent $3,800 for a meeting “with House members to discuss officeholder business.”
Straus did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The living and dining expenditures are all within the state statute governing spending of campaign funds, a rule that hasn’t been altered for decades. The only thing, perhaps, inhibiting more lawmakers, is the impression of excess it imparts to those outside of the political system.
“You also have to look at the perception of the spending,” said Coleman, the legislator from Houston. “You have to budget, and if you spend a lot on housing, you don’t have money left to do other things. “
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or [email protected]