Texas Monitor Week In Review — July 9, 2017

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This week, The Texas Monitor unveiled the Senate runner up in our countdown of big spenders featured in our “Lifestyles of State Lawmakers” series.

Our research team has culled through campaign reports for state legislators going back a decade, uncovering millions of dollars of expenditures for which the benefits to the politicians’ lifestyles are more evident than those to their constituents.

Coming in at number 2 in the Texas Senate is Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. She spent over $683,000 on the major lifestyle spending categories including in our tabulation.

Zaffirini’s automotive spending accounted for $280,000 of that total.

Other legislators in our countdown lease cars for themselves using donor cash, but Zaffirini leases not one but two vehicles, including one for her campaign staff.

According to her most recent reports, she’s been driving a Lincoln Navigator with a nearly $1000-per-month payment. Her staff settle for a more modest Chevy model that costs just over $400 per month.

Aside from lease payments, Zaffirini’s donors have also covered over $70,000 worth of car insurance, maintenance — even satellite radio.

The senator told The Texas Monitor that she started leasing cars out of her campaign account after her first term, when her state duties spurred her to put over 100,000 miles on her car and another 100,000 on her husband’s.

Zaffirini spent even more on another category in our tabulation — gifts to supporters — totaling $310,000 over the ten-year period.

She spent over $127,000 with a company called Personalized Promotions out of Lewisville. They supplied her on three dozen occasions with imprinted pencils, coolers, cups and other items, according to her expense report descriptions.

The senator also bought over $65,000 worth of capitol-related knickknacks and another $30,000 worth of books from Amazon.com.

An avid Longhorn, Zaffirini has tapped $4,300 of donor cash for UT football tickets and $12,000 for sporting events overall.

Her biggest indulgence while in Austin is at the Headliners Club — which bills itself as “Austin’s premiere downtown private club.” Her tabs and dues there over the past decade total $22,000 — all compliments of her political donors. She’s spread another ten grand around at Austin’s other eateries.

The Texas Monitor reached out for the perspective of Laura Friedenback of the Every Voice Center, a group that aims to give everyone a voice in the political system, and she had this to say: “When we have a political system in which politicians rely on large contributions, instead of support from their constituents, politicians feel less accountable and more free to act in ways that their constituents may find shameful.”

In Houston, a company aiming to solve the city’s trash problems asked for investigations into Mayor Sylvester Turner and his team on how they handled the city’s garbage contracting proposals, as well as possible bid rigging and lobbying violations at City Hall.

Eco-Hub proposed a “One Bin” solution to the city that would reduce garbage truck routes from three to one, putting all trash and recycling in just one bin and recycling as much as 75 percent of it. The savings to taxpayers could have been as much as $40 million with zero cost to taxpayers, said the company’s chairman, George Gitschel.

Gitschel claims that city officials are too chummy with trash-hauling giants — and that’s why the city threw his proposal into the dustbin and went with a far more expensive company.

At a Wednesday news conference, the mayor dismissed Gitschel’s claims, and last week he angrily sparred with an ABC13 reporter on the issue.

Gitschel doesn’t expect city officials to look into his allegations, and hinted that he is talking to others who may investigate.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that state Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin pleaded not guilty to abuse-of-office-charges in Travis County district court.

Dukes faces up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 if convicted of charges that she falsified travel vouchers to receive reimbursements from the state that she was not owed. She faces another year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000 on charges that she used a legislative staffer as a live-in nanny and used staff for non-profit work not related to state business.

Dukes has also faced criticism for poor attendance during legislative session, and for reneging on a pledge to resign from her post in January, which enabled her to boost her state pension by $3,220 per year.

Travis County Democrats have begun soliciting challengers to unseat Dukes in the primary election next spring. When asked by reporters outside the courtroom if she was going to run for re-election, Dukes said: “That is a very strong possibility.”

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