During his first term, in the last two sessions of the Texas Legislature, Governor Greg Abbott pushed lawmakers to pass ethics reform.
In 2017, the Legislature passed, and Abbott signed three bills to curb the influence of lobbyists at the Capitol. Abbott’s appetite for reform has been notably absent, however, when it comes to himself.
Abbott rejected calls from lawmakers to add ethics reform as an emergency item on the 2017 special session, and in particular an attempt by a San Antonio Republican House Member to curtail the governor’s ability to reward campaign contributors with plum appointments to state boards and commissions.
With Abbott just inaugurated for a second full term, questions about donor influence and the culture of pay-to-play are once again a top concern in the quest for better governance.
On Thursday, January 10th, the canvassed results for the November 2018 Governor and Lieutenant Governor races were certified by the Texas Legislature, making Greg Abbott’s and Dan Patrick’s victories official. With the inauguration festivities for the 48th Governor and 42nd Lt. Governor of Texas underway today, it bears asking who is organizing and funding the event.
Historically, the Inaugural Committee organizes the inauguration of the Governor and Lt. Governor following every gubernatorial election. The committee is governed by Section 401 of the Texas Government Code, which states that the Committee Chair and one of the two Committee co-chairs are appointed by the Governor-elect while the other co-chair is appointed by the Lt. Governor-elect following the Secretary of State’s proclamation confirming the election results. An individual, by law, can only be eligible for appointment of these three positions if they do not hold “a position of profit under this state or the United States.”
The primary funding source for the inauguration is inaugural contributions, outlined in Section 401, which come from individuals, associations, corporations, and legal entities to cover inaugural expenses, and which have no limits. Private contributions also come in the form of ticket sales to the BBQ and Inaugural Ball following the official swearing of oath ceremony.
The cost for the 2019 inauguration has not yet been reported; however, it will likely be in the millions of dollars. Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick’s 2015 inauguration cost $4 million dollars, more than double the cost of Governor Perry’s inaugurations in 2007 and 2011, according to the Houston Chronicle.
One issue raised after previous inaugurations is the “back-door” influence of inaugural contributions, which are exempt from the rules governing political contributions. While corporations are prohibited from giving directly to elected officials, they may contribute to the inauguration. The Texas Tribune reported that for the 2015 inauguration, underwriters who contributed at a certain level could get greater event privileges during the two-day affair.
Timely disclosure of inauguration contributors has also become an issue. Abbott’s 2015 Inaugural Committee kept the list of donors private until after the event, a departure from standard practice, according to the Dallas News. The 2015 report showed nearly $3 million came from corporations, including major campaign donors of Governor Abbott, but the information was not made public until nearly a month after the event.
The January 15, 2019 inauguration schedule began with a prayer service at 9 AM at the First Baptist Church, the Oath of Office ceremony at 11 AM on the Capitol steps, a BBQ at 12:30 PM on South Lawn, and concludes with the evening Ball held at 8 PM at the Palmer Events Center. The Oath of Office ceremony was free of charge, while the BBQ cost $10 to attend, the same as in 2015, whereas the price of admission for the Ball increased from $75 in 2015 to $125 in 2019.
Last month, the 2019 Inaugural Committee announced its leadership team, appointed by Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick. J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, an Abbott appointee, is chairman of the 2019 Inaugural Committee. Melinda B. Hildebrand, Vice Chair of the Hildebrand Foundation and the Vice President of Hilcorp Ventures Inc., was appointed as one of the co-chairs. Ray L. Hunt, CEO of Hunt Oil and chairman of Hunt Consolidated, an oil and gas, electric power, real estate and investing conglomerate, was appointed as the other committee co-chair.
It is unclear who else is on the Inaugural Committee as no further information has been released from the Committee, the Governor’s office, or the Lt. Governor’s office.
Another ethical concern related to the inauguration is the question of “pay-to-play” access to join the Inaugural Committee. As the San Antonio-Express News has reported, many Texans who are appointed by Governor Abbott to prestigious Boards and Commissions across the state also happen to be major contributors to his campaign. The Governor has denied the practice, but one appointee’s comments last fall appear to suggest otherwise. Legislators have tried to restrict and regulate this unethical but legal practice but have gotten nowhere. It is expected that the legislation will be filed again in the current session.
In the past, the Inaugural Committee has consistently been comprised of big money donors to the Governor and Lt. Governor. The Dallas News reported that of Abbott’s 35 appointees to the 2015 Inaugural Committee, “25 of the individuals and couples were major contributors to his campaign — giving a combined $8.3 million. The vast majority of his appointees gave $200,000 or more to his campaign.”
According to a Reform Austin analysis of campaign finance records, the three top members of the 2019 Inaugural Committee continue the pattern. J. Bruce Bugg Jr., Committee Chair, gave $109,948 to Abbott and $12,500 to Patrick in the most recent 2018 election cycle.
Reform Austin found that while Committee Co-chair Melinda Hildebrand did not contribute to Abbott or Patrick directly, records show her husband, Jeffery Hildebrand, chairman of the Houston oil-company Hilcorp, has given $500,000 to Abbott and $140,000 to Patrick in the 2018 election cycle.
Finally, Co-chair Ray Hunt gave $505,944 to Abbott and $250,000 to Patrick in the most recent election cycle.
Our Governor, Lt. Governor, and the Inaugural Committee must be more transparent and timely in releasing the complete Inaugural Committee list, financial contributors and their contribution amounts. Moving forward, the Legislature should ban corporate inaugural contributions, which create risk of undue influence on our state’s top officials.