01/22/19

Who is Buying Access to Texas’ Top Politicians?

Texas politicians and PACs are required to file reports with the Texas Ethics Commission listing all their campaign contributions and expenditures. The most recent reports — which include all transactions for the last half of 2018 — were just released. Two major things to pay attention to in these reports: 1) final numbers on both donations and spending for the 2018 Election Cycle, and 2) perhaps even more interesting, a list of all donations made to Texas politicians after the election.

Yes, you read that right. Money comes pouring in to winning politicians’ campaign accounts after the election. Why? Access. Favor. Encouragement. Call it what you like, it’s a way to remind lawmakers who their “friends” are before they begin spending your tax dollars and making laws that affect your life.

Post-Election Campaign Donations

While it is a crime to bribe a lawmaker, donations to their campaign accounts are perfectly legal. The difference is that a bribe would go to a politician’s personal account and be given in secret, while a campaign donation goes to the politician’s campaign account (not used for personal spending).

In order to prevent politicians from being bribed for their votes, the laws governing campaign contributions are structured with several checks in place. First, there is a freeze on all donations to campaigns from 30 days before the legislative session until 20 days after. Second, politicians are not allowed to take personal money in exchange for their votes; they are only allowed to take campaign donations and to use those donations for limited purposes. Third, all campaign donations and expenditures must be reported and made available to the public. The rationale behind these laws assumes that citizens will keep an eye on the money and hold lawmakers accountable.

With that in mind, here is a look at the post-election donations to Texas’ so-called “Big Three:” Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and new Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen.

Abbott, known for his prolific fundraising, took in $1,849,832 in the window between the election, November 6, and the start of the moratorium on campaign donations, which began December 9. His largest donation during this time was a whopping $250,000 from Charles Butt, billionaire owner and CEO of H-E-B grocery stores. Abbott’s gift list from this time also includes an impressive 41 donations of $10,000 or more.

Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, took in $997,056 between the election and the donation moratorium. Patrick’s largest post-election donations were $100,000 from the Ryan Texas PAC and $50,000 from Friends of UT Southwestern PAC.

The most interesting story told by these reports features new Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen. On November 12, Bonnen suddenly emerged from a crowded pack of wanna-be Speakers to announce that he had enough votes from his fellow members of the House to replace outgoing Speaker Joe Straus. Over the next 26 days, up until the moment before the mandatory pause on donations, Bonnen’s account was flooded with campaign contributions, taking in a jaw-dropping $3.9 million. His top donors during this post-election time frame were Border Health PAC with two gifts totaling $100,000 and Charles Butt close behind with gifts totaling $77,100.

Who is giving to politicians after the election?

We’ve already seen a few big names come up as top donors. Let’s explore a little deeper. Each of the “Big Three” received gifts from lobbyists, special interest PACs, and wealthy donors whose businesses could be impacted by new legislation.

Perhaps the most notable post-election donor is the only one who showed up on all three of these powerful politicians’ lists (landing in the #1 spot on Bonnen’s list and in the top ten for Abbott and Patrick): Border Health PAC. The stated purpose of Border Health PAC is to promote the issues of the medical profession along Texas’ section of the U.S. – Mexico border, and to support and elect like-minded candidates. Although Border Health has not recently stated any specific policy goals, historically their political donations have primarily benefitted Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans. It is likely their donations to Abbott, Patrick, and Bonnen are not because they necessarily agree with the political views of these men, but because these three are now the most powerful politicians in Texas.

Another remarkable donor is Charles Butt, owner and CEO of H-E-B grocery stores, whose name we’ve already seen twice. Butt was one of the top ten donors after the election to both Abbott and Bonnen. Although Butt has no children of his own, he is known for his support of public schools and opposition to school voucher programs. Abbott, Patrick, and Bonnen have publicly agreed that reforming school finance will be the top priority for this legislative session.

Other names that appear near the top of at least two of the Big Three’s the post-election gift lists are Ross Perot, Jr., real estate developer, Javaid Anwar, oil and gas entrepreneur, James Pitcock, CEO of Williams Brothers Construction Company, and Paul Foster, Chairman of Western Refining in El Paso.

It’s also interesting to note who is NOT on these lists of post-election donors. None of the top three individual donors of the 2018 election cycle — neither the Dunns nor the Wilks (both heavy hitters on the right) nor George Soros (socialist billionaire) — gave gifts after the election.

Accountability

Post-election donations are all public record, in order to hold both donors and politicians accountable. But this system only works when citizens pay attention. Until now, the only source for this data was the notoriously confusing government website run by the Texas Ethics Commission. At Transparency Texas, we take all the data and make it easy to search and easy to understand. We want citizens, not just political insiders, to understand the money and the motivations at play in Texas politics. If you want to know more you can search here. Just enter the name of a Texas* politician, PAC, or a donor, and you can see exactly what’s going on. Let us know if we can help you find something you’d like to know.

*Our site contains information related only to Texas state politics. We do not have data on federal politicians — including the Texas delegations to the U.S. House and Senate.

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