History of LWVTX Action on Campaign Finance Reform

History of LWVTX Action on Campaign Finance Reform

History: Political Campaign Process

1991-1992: Based on the LWVUS position calling for an independent body to monitor and enforce election laws, LWV-TX supported the establishment of a state ethics commission in 1991. The League believes, however, the process for appointing members to the commission that was created by constitutional amendment in 1991 is flawed. The League closely monitored the proceedings of the Ethics Commission during its first two years of existence, 1992-93.

1993-1994: During the 1993 legislative session, Political Campaign Process (PCP) was one of the League's priority issues, and an Advocacy Paper, Take Back the System, was published. LWV-TX supported bills that would have imposed limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, working in coalition with groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen. These bills did not pass.

Several bills were introduced which would have modified the commission's regulation of lobbyists. These proposals were a mixed bag, from the League's point of view; none were enacted. After the session ended, a League representative was asked to serve on a Rules Advisory Task Force to evaluate the rule-making authority of the Ethics Commission, including that of regulating lobbyists' activities.

The League also joined a coalition of public interest groups that asked candidates running for the Texas Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, and Courts of Civil Appeals to sign a Fair Campaign Practices Pledge. This initiative was undertaken in response to concerns expressed by citizens, attorneys, and judges about special interest contributions to judicial campaigns and the possible effects of such gifts on judicial decisions.

1995: The notion that justice was for sale came to a head in the 1994 general election and helped create a climate in which campaign finance reform had the attention of the 74th Legislature. A law was passed that limits the period of time in which judicial candidates can accept contributions and the amount of money they can accept from specific sources, including law firms and political action committees (PACs). The measure also provides for voluntary limits on candidates' expenditures. LWV-TX supported the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act and looks to it as a step toward more comprehensive reform in the next session.

Campaign finance reform and other aspects of the political campaign process in Texas will continue to be active issues in the foreseeable future, and LWV-TX will maintain an active role in advocating its positions.

1997: Although many bills relating to election laws/campaign finance were filed during this session, few met with success. The League published an Advocacy Paper, Take Back the System: Campaign Finance Reform in Texas, and also actively supported a bipartisan bill to move primary elections from March to May. Utilizing testimony presented to the house Elections Committee, the League distributed information to each member of the House prior to floor debate. The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

1999: Disclosure of campaign funding through the filing of campaign finance reports became the focus of League efforts during the legislative session. The League was successful in achieving passage of a measure that mandates that campaign finance reports be filed electronically and published by the Ethics Commission on the internet. A new advocacy paper was produced for this session, and is listed below.

2001: Limits on campaign contributions and expenditures continue to elude us. Very few bills were filed in the 77th legislative session that would provide for limits, and those that were, did not get hearings. Both political parties continued to support closing loopholes in existing disclosure laws. Comprehensive bills were filed in the House and the Senate, but differences over including identification of contributors' occupations and employers (and other issues) sent the bill to a conference committee. No agreement was reached and the bill died in committee. The League was active throughout the process providing testimony in favor of the House version, and urging passage out of the conference committee.

2003: The Ethics Commission was due its first review by the Sunset Review Commission since its establishment in 1991. In anticipation of legislation to be presented in the 78th session of the Texas Legislature, the League joined a coalition, "Show Me the Money," composed of 60 diverse organizations throughout the state. Of these, six organizations, LWV-TX, Common Cause, Campaigns for People, Public Citizen, The Baptist Christian Life Commission, and Texans for Public Justice, developed strategies during the interim to prepare for legislation in the upcoming legislative session.

House speaker Craddick appointed a Select Committee on Ethics, which introduced a comprehensive bill that outlined reforms to make the Ethics Commission more effective and included strengthening disclosure laws. The League testified in favor of the bill although it did not include all the reforms we and the coalition would have liked. The bill passed the committee unanimously, and subsequently passed the House. However, the Senate Government Organization Committee produced and passed a watered down bill, despite testimony presented by the League and other coalition members. The watered down bill passed the full Senate. As a result, the bill was referred to a Conference Committee to settle House and Senate differences. Fortunately, the Conference Committee restored the provisions that had been deleted by the Senate.

The Governor signed the bill. These provisions will:

  • restrict contributions until after the deadline for the governor to veto bills
  • require disclosure of cash balances
  • require reporting of occupation and employer of large donors
  • require filing of campaign reports electronically
  • prohibit lawyers to represent paying clients before state agencies
  • disclosure by lawyers of trial delays during the legislative session

During the 79th Legislative session a coalition of diverse, statewide organizations concerned about the unlimited amounts of money used to finance our state's elections will focus on:

  • closing corporate and union money loopholes
  • setting reasonable individual and aggregate contribution limits
  • improving the effectiveness and independence of the Texas Ethics Commission
  • opening the legislative process and recording legislative votes

2005: In preparation for the 79th Legislative session LWV-TX collaborated with a coalition of over 60 diverse, statewide organizations, including both political parties. There was great concern about the unlimited amounts of money used to finance campaigns, and concern about unnamed corporations that contributed undisclosed millions of dollars to defeat candidates with mass mailings, negative issue ads, flyers, and phone banks. This appeared to circumvent the century-old Texas state law prohibiting corporations and unions from contributing funds for administrative costs to engage in political activity. The fund raisers claimed that the issue ads were educational because they did not use the words "for" or "against" the candidates they were targeting. These activities were concentrated in the last 60 days before the primary election of 2002. The proponents also claimed that the definition of administrative costs in the Texas Election Code was unclear.

As a result, the coalition agreed to focus on:

  • closing the cooperate and union money loopholes
  • setting reasonable individual and aggregate corporate contribution limits
  • improving the effectiveness and independence of the Texas Ethics Commission
  • opening the legislative process and recording non-ceremonial votes

During the session, the group prioritized its focus primarily on closing the corporate and union money loopholes. Working with Representative Craig Eiland (D. Galveston) and Rep. Todd Smith (R. Euless) that ensured bipartisan support, a bill was filed, HB 1348, that would specifically define administrative costs as those incurred in the normal course of business, would prohibit acceptance of contributions and make expenditures 60 days before a primary election, ban sham issue ads 60 days before the primary election, and would prohibit expenditures from PACs not connected to unions and corporation. Over 90 bipartisan House members signed on as co-sponsors.

A subcommittee of the Elections Committee held a public hearing in which the League presented testimony and was left pending with a substitute. The Elections Committee did not hold a hearing. Consequently, a bold maneuver to bypass the Elections Committee and debate the bill on the House floor was attempted but was defeated when Rep. Terry Keel, one of the co- sponsors, scuttled the bill on the basis that it bypassed the legislative process. Subsequently, the Elections Committee held a formal hearing and defeated the bill 4-3.

The bottom line is that the bill did not have the support of the House leadership, most of whom benefited from the unreported funds given by the unnamed corporations. It is very likely that the issue will be visited in the 80th Legislative session.

2006 (Legislative Interim): LWV-TX joined with Common Cause Texas and Texans for Public Justice in efforts to make the state government more transparent and accountable. The groups, acknowledging that reforms are needed to strengthen Texas' campaign finance laws and insure open and independent government, free from the influence and dominance of special interests, developed a list of five, non-partisan reforms:

  • Place a $100,000 aggregate limit on individual contributions
  • Close the revolving door between the Legislature and the Lobby
  • Keep judges independent by appointment and retention election
  • Record all non-ceremonial legislative votes
  • Create an independent redistricting commission

2007: In the 80th Legislative session, the League in collaboration with Common Cause, Texas for Public Justice, Public Citizen, Baptist Christian Life Commission, and Gray Panthers, focused on two of the five campaign finance issues agreed to in the 2006 interim. The group advocated and provided testimony for three bills limiting individual contributions. HB 110 (Strama) broke down in categories the amount the limits would impose on candidates for the executive branch, state senator, state representatives, and state board of education. HB 111 (Villereal) would impose limits of $ 100,000 on the total amount an individual could contribute to a candidate in an election cycle. HB 1085 (T. Smith) prohibited the use of corporate or union funds to pay for Phony "issue" ads. Closing the revolving door HB 602 (D. Howard) required legislators who leave office to wait two years before becoming lobbyist. None of these bills made it out of the Elections Committee.

Two disclosure bills supported did pass although without the governor's signature. These bills provided some measure of success in the session. The Texas Ethics Commission ruled it had no authority to report the value of cash gifts given to elected officials unless the legislature passed required legislation. To correct this, HB 158 (Naishtat) would require the reporting the value of cash gifts. It was passed by both houses of the legislature. SB 64 (Zaffirini), passed by both houses, requires a general purpose committee to file additional reports nine days before an election until noon on election day. This would curtail the "late train" donations before an election in which the public was not previously informed.

2009: In the 81st legislative session, not much progress was made to reform the way political campaigns are financed. Four minor bills supported by the League were passed by both Houses and signed by the Governor. Two of the bills were related to the Texas Ethics Commission: HB 3216 provides for immediate notification to respondents of complaints either electronically or by telephone and by written notice after five days. HB 3218 requires that a sworn complaint must include the person's name, address, telephone number, e-mail address if known, be a resident of the State of Texas, and include other pertinent information. These reforms standardize the complaint process.

SB 1152 prohibits accepting political contributions in state buildings. HB 4060 limits the time when judicial candidates can accept contributions even if the candidate is unopposed. While these four bills could be called piece meal legislation they do tighten up the some loose ends of the political campaign process. More comprehensive legislation such as HB 105, the Texas Fair Campaign Act, HB 391 and SB 246, The Clean Elections Act, would impose limits on individual campaign contributions for elected state offices. The League supported these measures.

2011: In the wake of the most expensive election in the state's history, it should come as no surprise that campaign finance reform was a low priority this session. Only one League- supported campaign finance bill (HB 336) passed. It requires school boards to post candidate financial information on their websites, beginning Sept. 1, 2011. Strangely, a very similar bill that focused on city and county elections failed to get out of committee.

2013: On May 1, 2014, the House State Affairs Committee held an interim hearing on campaign finance disclosure. This hearing was to revisit the issue that was addressed in the 2013 session by SB 346 (Seliger), a bill that was passed by both legislative chambers but was vetoed by the governor after adjournment.

Currently, names of contributors who give directly to candidates and officeholders must be disclosed, but certain types of political PACS are not required to disclose the names of their contributors. The League believes that voters have the right to know the names of any person or entity that spends money to influence elections.

At the hearing, a Utah legislator testified about a political scandal in his state in which the Utah Attorney General was forced to step down after an investigation conducted by members of his own political party. The investigation revealed that much of his campaign money, although "laundered" four times, came from the payday loan industry after he had made promises to rule in their favor. The Utah legislator urged the Texas Legislature to pass stringent disclosure measures.

While LWV does not believe that disclosure is the only remedy to a government answerable to the people and not just big donors, we see it as an essential part of democracy. We expect to work with the legislature in the next session to get this measure passed.

2015. The governor stated that one of his five priorities for the 84th Legislature was to address ethics reform. The LWVTX worked with the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign (TACC), a partnership of several organizations, including Common Cause, Public Citizen, and Clean Elections Texas, to track and support serious ethics reform bills. 

More than 100 bills were filed relating to government ethics. Just 15 passed the House and Senate. Two were vetoed. The bills passed were, by and large, limited efforts to curb specific abuses in a piecemeal manner. For example, SB 20 (Nelson), which the LWVTX watched carefully, did pass and, while it has some loopholes, it has the potential to prevent some contracting abuses. Another bill, HB 23 (Davis, Sarah), which the LWVTX supported, will extend contracting disclosure requirements to immediate family members.

SB 19 (V. Taylor), the most comprehensive bill, which the LWVTX testified on, passed both the House and the Senate. Although it was not perfect, following testimony by the LWVTX and other organizations it was improved to include a number of provisions that, if enforced, would have strengthened the Texas Ethics Commission and established meaningful guidelines and criminal offenses for serious official misconduct. Unfortunately, it did not pass out of conference committee, apparently due to disagreements regarding whether to include curbs on "dark money" (undisclosed campaign contributions). The last-minute loss of this bill means serious reforms to rein in egregious campaign practices and almost unimaginable spending once again have eluded us.

Most significant, HB 1690 (P. King), which the LWVTX strongly opposed, passed and was signed by the governor. Its primary purpose was to dissolve the Public Integrity Unit based in the Austin District Attorney's office. Instead, the Texas Rangers are to investigate complaints and refer them to the alleged offender's home county prosecutor. The LWVTX concern is that this bill creates a separate and unique legal system for politicians and government officials. In addition, a strong nondisclosure provision will prevent public scrutiny. We are left to conclude that the political will to root out and prevent corruption just wasn't there, despite the governor's professed concerns.

2019.  We registered support for two bills, HB 1876 and HB 1877 (Davis).  Both were omnibus bills which incorporated several laws passed by the House in 2017, but not the Senate.  The Texas Ethics Commission for recommended these bills.

HB 1876 would have expanded the blackout period for political contributions that exist for the regular legislative session to also apply to special sessions.  HB 1877 would have allowed corporations and labor organizations to make political contributions to certain political committees; extended existing prohibition of using public funds to make political contributions to include an officer or employee with a political subdivision; removed unconstitutional regulations on contributions to Speaker of the House campaigns.  Both bills were left pending in the House State Affairs committee.