Three Things You Need to Know About Money and the Legislative Session
Every two years, Texas lawmakers gather in Austin for 140 days to do their work. The 86th Session of the Texas Legislature convened at noon today.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Texas politicians cannot accept donations during the session.
To avoid the appearance (and reality) of lawmakers being bribed for their votes, Texas legislators and statewide office holders (such as the Governor and Attorney General) are not allowed to accept political contributions during the legislative session. They are, however, allowed to spend any money currently in their campaign account. The moratorium on donations begins 30 days before the regular legislative session and concludes 20 days after the session ends. In this case, the moratorium began December 9, 2018, and will end June 16, 2019.
- But they do get paid.
Texas lawmakers are paid $600 per month, both while in session and out. They also receive a per diem, money to cover expenses for each of the 140 days they are in session in Austin. While any changes to legislators’ base pay would require voter approval, The Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) is authorized to increase legislators’ per diem without voter approval. Just last month, the TEC approved a 16 percent increase in the per diem — from $190 per day to $221. This brings total pay for the session to $33,940 — not too shabby for five months. Total income for a two year term is $45,340.
- Lobbyists provide another sort of “contribution.”
Although the moratorium on political contributions is designed to prohibit citizens and PACs from using money to influence legislation, lobbyists are given a pass. By definition a lobbyist is someone who gets paid to influence legislation, and their most common means of persuasion is wining and dining lawmakers. In an attempt to prevent inappropriate influence, Texas law requires lobbyists to provide “detailed reporting,” including the names of the lawmakers and their family members who benefit from this entertaining. But there’s an exception — lobbyists are only required to report their expenditures when those costs exceed 60 percent of the lawmaker’s per diem. In other words, a lobbyist can spend up to $132.60 on a lawmaker each day without having to report it. If a lobbyist takes four legislators to dinner, he can spend more than $530 without having to file a report. If two lobbyists happen to be there, they can spend more than a $1000 on those legislators without voters ever knowing. That’s a Texas-sized exception for sure.
While campaign contributions have temporarily ceased with the start of the legislative session, another kind of financial influence has just begun — lobbying. And while lawmakers can’t accept new contributions, they can spend those they’ve already received. We’ll be keeping an eye on the spending by lobbyists and legislators alike, making sure you know the truth about the money in Texas politics.
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