Cleaning Up Texas Politics

Big-money special interests dominate Texas government, undermining democracy in Texas. Many Texans today don't vote or participate, believing special interests run the state. Talented candidates don't run, unable to compete without personal wealth or special interest backers. Most legislative elections don't offer voters a choice in candidates, with incumbents running unopposed or grossly outspending their challengers.

We support reforms that are working successfully in other states to enhance the power of the public and reduce the influence of special interests. These changes will make elections competitive again and enhance the role of smaller donors. They will put the voter back in charge in Texas.

We are working to guarantee that every Texans' voice is heard by promoting non-partisan political reform, including measures to:

  1. Close corporate and union soft money loopholes
  2. Establish reasonable campaign contribution limits
  3. Improve the effectiveness and independence of the Texas Ethics Commission
  4. Record all legislative votes publicly to ensure accountability to voters

Tightening the state's prohibition on corporate and union soft money, as the McCain-Feingold law does on the federal level, would ensure that soft money stays out of our state's elections. Contribution limits would prevent individuals or PACs in Texas from having undue influence over an officeholder. An effective enforcement agency would serve as a deterrent and ensure our laws are enforced. Recording all legislative votes would ensure accountability to voters.

1. Closing Corporate and Union Soft Money Loopholes

Texas needs 3 changes to have an effective corporate and union prohibition:

  1. A ban on the use of corporate and union money on pseudo-issue ads (ads within 60 days of an election that refer to a candidate and target that candidate's electorate).
  2. A ban on new types of corporate entities from using their funds to influence elections
  3. A ban on contributions from the accounts of out-of-state PACs and political parties that commingle corporate and non-corporate funds

The best way for Texas to get rid of corporate funded pseudo-issue ads is to adopt a state version of the federal McCain-Feingold law. This law enacts a bright line, easily enforceable test. An ad is electioneering, and corporate and union money is not allowed, if the ad is broadcast 60 days before an election, refers to a candidate, and reaches more than so many voters in that candidate's district. A study by the Brennan Center (the nation's leading campaign finance gurus) found that the vast majority of people could not tell the difference between ads that used the "magic words" (vote for or against X) and ads that satisfied this bright line test.

Texas state senator Rodney Ellis introduced last session a bill with a similar test, HB1616. It would adopt the bright-line test for broadcast ads in Texas state elections and extend it to direct mail pieces. This would effectively end corporate-funded pseudo-issue ads such as TAB's.

The corporate prohibition also should be extended to the new types of corporate entities. The current Texas prohibition applies only to traditional business corporations; it does not apply to limited liability companies, professional companies, and limited liability partnerships (which are used by a number of companies to avoid the state's franchise tax). The prohibition should apply to all businesses--whatever the nuances of their form--that receive from the state personal liability protection for their investors.
We should ban as well contributions from the slush funds of federal and out-of-state political parties and PACs. These slush funds, such as the Republican National State Elections Committee (and its Democratic Party counterpart), accept corporate and individual monies. It is then difficult to tell if their donations consist of corporate funds (because all money is fungible). The solution is to pass laws similar to those that Connecticut has for national political parties: no state candidate or PAC can accept any donations from any account that accepts corporate or union money.

2. Establishing Reasonable Contribution Limits

Texas is one of only 8 states with no contribution limits on candidates for legislative or executive office. Without limits, Texas' state contributions come from only a few, very large donors:

  • In 2002, $60 million of the $127 million in contributions given to Texas state candidates came from 382 donors.
  • 15 individual donors gave over $500,000 a piece to state candidates, and 3 individuals gave over $1 million each.
  • 95% of all contributions came from contributions of $500 or more and 91% from contributions of $1,000 or more.
    (For in-depth information, see Texans for Public Justice)

The current system clearly gives a major advantage to incumbents and discourages competition from challengers. In the 2002 election, for example, 60% of state senate and house candidates had no major party opponent in the general election. To encourage more competition, it is important to establish reasonable limits on the amount candidates may receive from an individual or PAC. It would be reasonable, for example, to limit individual and PAC contributions per contested election to $1000 for a candidate for the Texas House and Texas Senate and to $2500 for a statewide candidate.

These limits are in line with other states' limits and have been proposed in recent legislation in Texas. In addition, an aggregate limit on total contributions from a single individual has been an effective deterrent to excessive influence by one person. For example, it would be reasonable to allow one individual to give no more than $25,000 in total for each state election. Laws limiting campaign contributions are clearly constitutional, as the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed in the decision of Shrink Missouri PAC v. Nixon (January 2000).

3. Improving the Effectiveness and Independence of the Texas
Ethics Commission

Presently, the TEC is unable to carry out timely and effective enforcement of our state’s campaign finance laws. Laws that aren’t enforced aren’t laws: they’re merely suggestions. After 12 years and more than 1000 filed complaints, the TEC has never subpoenaed a witness or document and never conducted a full audit of any campaign. We should require that the enforcement process be open to the public and that the TEC perform random audits on 1% of all campaigns annually. The TEC should be reorganized to eliminate bureaucratic barriers preventing the initiation and investigation of complaints. And funding for the TEC must be guaranteed every year, independent of the legislature.

4. Recording All Legislative Votes Publicly

No democratic process should take place beyond the scrutiny of the public. Yet Texas is one of only 9 states that don’t require legislators to record their votes. According to the Dallas Morning News (April 20, 2004) the 2001 legislature recorded final votes on fewer than half of the 1,601 measures it passed. All committee votes, floor amendments and final votes should be recorded and made public to ensure that legislators are accountable to their constituents.