Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), the Texas Speaker of the House, is generous with gifts, especially for members of his staff.
The Texas Monitor’s examination of Straus’ campaign fund spending from 2007-2016 shows close to 140 expenditures totaling around $72,300 that were described as “staff gifts.”
In all, that research showed some $303,641 total spent on gifts, including $41,036 for knick-knacks at the Capitol Gift Shop, $13,263 at Kaas Glassworks for gifts for dignitaries and donors, and $4,553 for baby shower gifts.
Straus also spends a hefty amount of campaign funds to send out Christmas cards to his supporters. For example, the reports from 2015 show $12,900 paid for printing and mailing the cards.
The Texas Monitor looked at campaign spending for all lawmakers and pulled out particular categories that some might question as lawmaker largesse, including out-of-state travel, lavish Austin apartments, car leases and gifts for supporters. Straus’s total across these categories was $567,149, which along with other lifestyle-oriented expenditures placed him number one in the Texas House in The Texas Monitor’s rankings.
His office did not return an email seeking comment on The Texas Monitor’s campaign spending report.
The Straus campaign spending price tag did not surprise attorney Brooks Harrison, a Democrat who comes from a long line of public servants, and is contemplating a legislative run.
“It doesn’t shock me one bit,” Harrison told the Texas Monitor. “The House Speaker is not a run-of-the-mill state representative or state senator even. A speaker of the house is a speaker for the entire house. I would fully expect his expenditures to be more than some Rio Grande Valley state representative who has 1,500 people in his district.”
Like many of his colleagues, Straus uses campaign funds to pay for at least a portion of trips, often to attend legislative conferences.
He’s racked up frequent flyer miles heading to these destinations in the past decade: Albany, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Bangor, Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Louisville, Mexico City, Naples, Nashville, Newark, New York, Newport News, Raleigh, Reno, Richmond, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.
Straus has used $78,434 from campaign coffers for out-of-state travel since 2007.
That’s less than his colleague Rep. Dan Flynn, number two on The Texas Monitor’s list for the Texas House, who spent $103,986 for 30 out-of-state trips since 2007.
Although Straus gets to use the Austin apartment reserved for the Texas Speaker of the House, he’s still managed to run up a bill in the six figures for food and supplies using campaign funds since 2007.
He has spent $51,717 at H-E-B Grocery, $39,748 at Central Market and $13,783 at Sam’s Club. His expense reports show 319 expenditures indicating purchases of kitchen supplies.
Much of the grocery and kitchen supply shopping are likely tied to his role as speaker and providing catering to various legislative events.
At least 460 expenditures totaling $39,539 were for meetings to discuss legislative business, according to their descriptions. His expenses show various meal expenses in Austin, including $13,599 at Ill Forks, $11,510 at Austin Club, and $4,541 at Headliners Club.
These expenditures did not surprise Harrison, who said meals are key in Straus’ role.
“He has to build relationships, often across party lines, among caucuses,” he said. “He is, essentially, a quasi-statewide officeholder.”
While many of the other lawmakers on The Texas Monitor’s list use campaign money to lease luxury vehicles and pay for their insurance and upkeep, Straus does not, as his campaign spending disclosures don’t show such expenses.
Straus has only faced mild push back from the Texas Ethics Commission — he paid a $500 fine after he filed a corrected report with that commission in 2015.
Besides the categories of lawmaker largesse, Straus has spent significant chunks of campaign funding on consultants and consulting firms — a total of $4.97 million since just 2010. These expenditures include $1,031,501 to Burson Masteller, $910,772 to Gordon Johnson, and $687,059 to LHP+Company.
Since 2010, the campaign has also spent $1.64 million for salaries.
Straus has also spent $135,000 to rent campaign space in Austin since 2007, with irregular payments (19 total) made to Johnson and Johnson PC.
Straus has also spent $5,609 to hold three fundraisers at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
He’s certainly had the campaign money for those types of expenditures, having raised $32.1 million since 2007.
Like others on The Texas Monitor’s list, he’s also had an easy go of it in elections since he gained the seat in a 2005 special election. Straus was unopposed in the General Election in 2010 and 2016 and only faced opposition from the Libertarian Party in 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2014.
“It goes to the heart of why we worry about unlimited campaign money, largely with candidates who don’t really need the money because they don’t face stiff election competition,” said Dan Weiner, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Less money spent on contested elections means more money for legislators to spend on other things. And in Texas, lawmakers have been able to amass Uncle Scrooge-like vaults of gold with the lack of contribution limits.
“Every jurisdiction in the country struggles with this issue,” Weiner said, “but it’s a bigger issue where there are no contribution limits.”
“If a contributor can only give $1,000 you can’t argue the donor paid for the legislator and his staff to go on a lavish trip,” he added.
By industry, Straus’ top contributors since 2007 are political groups (at least $3.66 million), energy (at least $2.13 million), and health and medical (at least $1.83 million).
His top donors during that time span are James Pitcock, Jr. ($400,000), AT&T Inc. Texas PAC ($352,500), Charles Butt ($280,000), and Bob & Doylene Perry ($245,000).
Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].