Readers who have followed The Texas Monitor’s series “Lifestyles of State Lawmakers” know that political contributions fuel more than just yard signs and mailers in the Texas legislature.
Incumbents tend to face weak challengers, if any, raising questions as to what is done with surplus lobby cash. The answer, as revealed by The Texas Monitor’s analysis of campaign finance reports going back a decade, is rampant spending on creature comforts with questionable relevance to serving constituents.
The series has spurred a flurry of comments from readers, including a provocative question yet to be addressed: how do all of the current members of each chamber compare in their lifestyle spending? Long-time incumbents naturally rose to the top of the big spender list published in our series based on ten years of data; but are there more junior members with enough fundraising prowess to afford the nicer perks of office?
To answer this question, The Texas Monitor has developed the Living Large Index for the state legislature, covering campaign expenditures over the 2015-2016 biennium and thus providing an apples-to-apples comparison of all current legislators. The index can be viewed here.
The tabulations are comprised of expenditures that fall into four categories that account for the bulk of all lifestyle-related expenditures.
- Austin living, including wining and dining as well as paying rent for domiciles, even when out of session;
- Out-of-state travel, often to destinations that could fill a luxury travel brochure;
- Vehicles, ostensibly for campaigning but also available for personal use;
- Gifts to constituents, staffers, donors, and other supporters.
The members of each chamber are ranked according to their spending totals and grouped into three cohorts — the top lifestyle spenders shown in red, the middle in yellow, and the bottom in green. A detailed description of the Living Large Index methodology can be viewed here.
There are many ways to explore the Living Large Index, but the following observations are apparent upon cursory review.
1. The bulk of lifestyle spending is done by a minority of legislators
The top cohort in the Senate (10 of 31 members) accounts for two-thirds of all lifestyle spending by the chamber. The bottom cohort spent only 7% of the total with the middle cohort making up the balance at 27%.
The spending is even more disproportionate in the House, where the top cohort (50 out of 150 members) accounted for 80% of total lifestyle spending, dwarfing the 3% spent by the bottom cohort as well as the 17% spent by the middle cohort.
2. Lifestyle spending and tenure tend to go hand and hand
Among Senators, the members in the top cohort are seasoned veterans (11.8 sessions served on average) as compared to the relative greenhorns in the bottom third (3.5 sessions on average). As can be seen in the chart below, tenure and spending are in lock step.
The correspondence between lifestyle spending and tenure holds when comparing the chambers, with the longer serving Senators spending more on average in all cohorts than their House counterparts. This is consistent with the typical political career path in which legislators begin serving in the House and later advance to the Senate. Case in point is the fifth largest spender in the Senate, John Whitmire (D-Houston), who first served in the House of Representatives from 1973 until 1983 when he was elected as a senator. Altogether, Whitmire has served in 23 legislative sessions.
3. The majority of committee chairmen are top spenders in the House but not in the Senate
As shown in the chart below, the 15 committee chair positions in the Senate are roughly balanced across the lifestyle spending cohorts (6 in the top, 5 in the middle, and 4 in the bottom); but not so in the House where 27 out 39 chairmanships (69%) are held within the top spender cohort.
However, as noted above, senators tend to be longer tenured and to spend more on lifestyle perks than representatives; and this is also true when comparing the 6 chairmen in the Senate to the 27 in the House who fall in the top spender cohorts. The former averaged over $118,000 in lifestyle expenditures and 12.2 sessions served and the latter $37,000 and 9.1 sessions served.
Chairmen are appointed by the lieutenant governor in the Senate and by the speaker in the House of Representatives.
In addition to these broader observations, the lifestyle spending of a handful of legislators on the Living Large Index is particularly noteworthy.
Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who topped The Texas Monitor’s previous examination of such campaign spending over the past decade also leads state senators in such spending in 2015 and 2016.
As in the previous report, Nelson leads primarily thanks to her apartment rentals. She has spent $116,709 on her Austin lease in just the past two years, with an average rent payment of $4,024 per month.
Nelson’s expenses also included $21,570 for a staff retreat at the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio.
Her overall lifestyle spending total was $188,741 for the two-year period.
Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), moved up from fifth in the decade-long view to second when examining 2015 and 2016, thanks largely to the $43,109 he spent on a campaign vehicle from Bill McRae Ford in his home city. His $131,598 total the past two years also includes $31,823 in private air travel.
A costly campaign vehicle also put Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) high on the list. His third-place ranking with $114,753 included $27,359 for his vehicle.
The $110,797 total of Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) included $60,900 for his Austin apartment and $21,279 on a Lexus lease.
Over in the House, Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) nudged out Speaker Joe Straus as the biggest spender over the biennium. Spending $19,293 on a campaign vehicle and $13,125 on Austin restaurants, Oliveira’s total expenditures in the four categories comes out to $90,077.
Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) is the third largest spender in the House index. Having served in six sessions so far, Zerwas rewards his staff generously from his campaign coffers — including over $155,100 over the past two years alone to Nelda Hunter, his chief of staff.
Also new to the top five spenders in the House index is Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana). Most of his lifestyle spending (at least $68,026) was on Austin rent, with monthly payments in 2015 and 2016 ranging from $3,500-$3,800.
A few legislators stand apart from these trends with their surprisingly low lifestyle-spending figures when tenure and status are taken into consideration.
Former House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) has served with the legislature since 1968, chaired many committees, and yet falls in the middle-third of the index with only $4,785 in lifestyle spending.
Rep. Tracy King (D-Batesville) also bucks the trend with just $7,379 of expenditures in the four categories — well below the average considering his 11-session tenure and chairmanship of the Agriculture & Livestock Committee.
Legislators’ spending habits are helped by the fact that Texas places no limits on campaign contributions, and records show that state lawmakers tend to get big bucks from a handful of donors. Critics point to such lavish spending as a strong reason why reform is needed.
Laura Friedenbach, deputy communications director for Every Voice, which advocates for those without big pocketbooks, says it’s the fundraising more than the job at the Capitol that makes lawmakers lose sight of what expenses might be questionable.
“When the rising costs of campaigns forces candidates to spend a lot of time asking for large checks from wealthy donors just to keep up with the money chase, it’s easier to get out of touch with what ordinary constituents think and what they consider to be acceptable behavior,” she told The Texas Monitor. “If candidates were able to fund their campaigns by collecting small checks from people of all backgrounds, then they would be able to stay grounded and in touch with their constituents.”
The Texas Ethics Commission previously told The Texas Monitor that such spending is the largest generator of complaints to the office, and Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, says such funds are designed to pay the expenses of running a campaign.
“There’s a big difference between running a campaign and running around town treating buddies to expensive dinners,” Smith said. “People donate that money for a campaign, not for living large.”
The Texas Monitor will continue to examine these expenses each biennium and report those results going forward.