Over the past few weeks, our investigative series, “Lifestyles of State Lawmakers”, has uncovered some interesting ways that legislators spend their campaign cash. You might be thinking of mailers and yard signs—well, sure, for those who face challengers. But incumbents often don’t face any competition to speak of, yet they still raise and spend a lot.
Out of thousands of reports, we’ve noticed four major ways that lawmakers treat themselves on their donors’ dime. They take a lot of trips to swanky destinations, enjoy the finer things while in Austin, drive nice cars, and hand out extravagant gifts to curry favor.
Watchdog groups say all this extra spending money from special interests poses an obvious conflict of interest—still, it’s perfectly legal in Texas.
So, who are the big spenders? This week we began to unveil the top five on our list from each chamber.
Coming in at number 5 in the house is state Rep. Rene Oliveira from Brownsville. He’s spent more than a quarter million dollars on lifestyle purchases over the past decade.
Car leases made up his biggest line item. He apparently likes that new car smell—having traded in at least five times in ten years.
He also takes in the Austin scene—to the tune of $65,000 at bars and restaurants, like the upscale Eddie V’s and Perry’s Steakhouse.
Food and drink abound while he’s at home too. One of his favorite haunts is Cobbleheads Bar & Grille, where he has picked up the check 531 times for $41,000.
And he also keeps the alcohol flowing at his capitol and district offices, as evidenced by $16,000 in liquor store receipts since 2007.
In the Senate, his counterpart at number 5 is state Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville.
Freshman legislators often find roommates to keep living costs down over their six-month stay in Austin for legislative session, which happens every odd year. They also tend to pick bargain hotels when they have business at the capitol in the interim.
Not Robert Nichols. He’s kept an apartment in Austin for ten years running, totaling $155,000 in rent, compliments of his political patrons.
Nichols has faced little opposition since he was elected in 2006, and that’s kept his campaign coffers brimming. Indeed, he’s raised $4.5 million in contributions and spent $3.4 million since 2007.
He’s used some of that money putting himself behind the wheel of three vehicles from the local Ford house—two for more than $40,000 and another just shy of $55,000. But evidently Nichols likes to keep his mileage down. He’s reported another $40,000 in private aviation epenses.
Nichols’ travels aren’t limited to the Lone Star state. In March 2016, he took two guests to Panama for a “Senate Committee Fact Finding Mission”, as his spending report noted. The airfare was over $2,500 and food and lodging at the Trump Ocean Club was another $4,400.
A spokesman from Nichols’ office told The Texas Monitor that, “he felt it was important to see how [the canal] locks work and the size of the ships going through”, which falls within his responsibilities as chairman of the powerful Senate transportation committee.
Stay tuned for the lawmakers coming in at number 4 on our list next week.
In other news, state Rep. Victoria Neave was arrested this week on suspicion of driving while intoxicated after crashing into a tree in Dallas. She was booked into Dallas County Jail at 3:30 a.m on Wednesday and bailed out later that morning.
A lawyer whose firm sometimes represents people accused of DWI, Neave refused to give a breath sample, and officers obtained a warrant for a blood sample, citing her slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol.
She reportedly told the arresting officers: “I love you and will fight for you and I’m invoking my 5th Amendment rights.”
Neave’s Democratic colleagues in the House named her Freshman of the Year.
Of note in her first session, she voted against a bill aimed at standardizing and liberalizing ridesharing in the state. That bill was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott, ushering rideshare companies Uber and Lyft back into the Austin market.
Both companies had exited the market over a regulatory battle with the City of Austin.
Austin police department statistics show that drunken driving arrests fell by nearly 100 per month after Uber and Lyft originally came to town.