A week after the 2018 general election, all eyes are on the upcoming 2019 regular session of the Texas Legislature. Beginning January 9, 2019, the new class of Texas Senators and Representatives will convene in Austin for the start of the 86th Regular Session to pass a two-year state budget and address some of the biggest issues facing the Lone Star State.
Reform Austin has reported extensively on the nexus of special interest campaign money and its impact on state legislation. Millions of dollars in special interest cash pour into campaign coffers, and the lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) who contribute expect legislators to vote their way on bills and amendments they care about.
Texas is one of 15 states to prohibit political fundraising during the legislative session. Statewide office holders and legislators are able to accept political donations for campaign funds until the Texas Ethics Commissions’ “Moratorium on Contributions” puts an end to all fundraising from December 8th of this year to June 17, 2019. This fundraising blackout period establishes “legislators, certain statewide officers, and certain political committees” may accept political contributions until December 8th, but must cut ties until the end of the Regular Session in 2019.
This Texas Ethics law was put in place after a bribery case in the 1990’s, when then Texas Speaker of the House Gib Lewis (D-Fort Worth) was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to disclose donations on official financial reports from powerful law firms. While Lewis denied any wrongdoing, the Texas Legislature passed an ethics bill a couple of years later to ensure address allegations of “pay-to-play” that plague the process of electing state officials and their legislative efforts.
The law has hardly meant an end to pay-to-play. It may have only shifted the exchange of cash for favors to the calendar falling outside the moratorium. As Texans know all too well, the political system in Austin can be a rigged game in favor of the moneyed and powerful special interests.
While current law prohibits lawmakers and PACs from accepting political cash during the regular legislative session, there is no prohibition for fundraising during a special session. This loophole created controversy in 2017 when Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session, while also urging supporters to donate to his re-election campaign. Governor Abbott and other candidates seeking re-election at the time were sharply criticized for taking advantage of the ethical loophole, which is something the new legislature should address in the upcoming session.
Currently, many new and returning Texas lawmakers are seeking political contributions for their campaigns, with many holding fundraisers before the December 8th deadline. Representative Eric Johnson (D- Dallas) announced on his Facebook page he will be holding a collective fundraising event in Austin on November 15 for new Democratic Texas Representatives-elect. And many candidates, including Governor Greg Abbott, still have active contribution links on their campaign websites.
Campaign finance and ethics reform should be at the top of the legislative agenda for the 86th session. Closing loopholes in the moratorium will give taxpayers more confidence our representatives are looking out for us, not their big donors.