On Monday, approximately 58 members of the Texas House of Representatives boarded private planes in Austin and flew to Washington, D.C. to avoid voting on an election integrity bill.
According to the statement released by Texas Democratic House Caucus Chair Chris Turner (HD 101, Arlington and Grand Prairie) and several other House leaders, “Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote.”
Governor Greg Abbott shot back, “Texas Democrats’ decision to break a quorum of the Texas Legislature and abandon the Texas State Capitol inflicts harm on the very Texans who elected them to serve. As they fly across the country on cushy private planes, they leave undone issues that can help their districts and our state.”
Abbott went on to pledge, “Once they step back into the state they will be arrested and brought back to the Capitol…” He and other Republicans defend the legislation as a simple effort to make it easier to vote, harder to cheat.
With Abbott specifically calling out the cost of the Democrats’ departure, just how expensive is this quorum break tactic, perhaps more interestingly, who is picking up the check?
Speculation swirled about who paid for the private jets, an estimated cost of approximately $81,000 round trip. In addition to the pricey flights, the n early 60 lawmakers are incurring food, lodging, and other expenses.
Although it is unclear who is footing the bill for the travel expenses, there is no doubt that Democrats’ political gambit is also costing taxpayers. Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has demanded that lawmakers return the $221/day lawmakers earn during a legislative session. Because of these per diem payments, combined with their regular salary, Democrats stand to earn $7,230 over 30 days while they refuse to work.
Several lawmakers who left for Washington have promised to return their per diem, but others have not. Even if all of them declined their per diem (and the $600 salary they will earn for the month), that does not include the salaries and per diem expenses for the lawmakers and staff who are still in Austin, but unable to conduct business because the legislature does not have a quorum.
Texas House Rep. Jared Patterson (HD 106, Frisco) claims a modest estimate for the expenses to the taxpayers is upwards of $43,000 every day the legislature is at a standstill.
Democrats have two basic options for handling the related expenses. First, they can pay for all the expenses out of their own pockets. This is unlikely, not only because of the exorbitant price tag, but also because they have been openly asking for donations to defray costs.
Alternatively, lawmakers can report all donations made to their PACs and campaign accounts used to cover trip expenses. (Lawmakers are required by law to report detailed information including the donor’s name, address, occupation, and employer for all donations of more than $90 per donor per two-year election cycle.)
But the reporting option is not as simple as it seems. For starters, they are only allowed to use donations to cover expenses related to their officeholder duties. It is a crime to use campaign contributions for personal expenses. This may explain why several Democrats have emphasized they are in Washington not to avoid their duties as legislators but to lobby Congress to pass the federal “For the People Act.” This could be a hard sell, however, since the stated point of their trip was to avoid a particular vote in Austin.
On top of being arrested and forced back to the Texas Capitol to vote, these Democrats could potentially face other, more serious ramifications. If they don’t handle the reporting of the trip-related expenses correctly, any Texas citizen would have standing to file a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission. Lawmakers could also face a criminal investigation/prosecution by the Public Integrity Unit of the Texas Rangers (which indirectly reports to Gov. Abbott) and/or a civil enforcement lawsuit from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office.
Lawmakers are required to file reports of donations coming in during a special session 30 days after the session adjourns or September 7. Those reports could spell trouble for legislators seeking re-election. If the donations and expenses from their time in Washington are not carefully documented, Democrats could make themselves vulnerable to accusations that they have inappropriately converted donations to personal use or taken illegal gifts.
As this story continues to develop over the coming months, Transparency USA will make the latest campaign finance news available to Texans. And once those special session reports become available, you’ll be able to see how much each Texas legislator spent from their campaign accounts, who supported them, and what they spent the money on during this time period. Subscribe to see the latest developments as soon as they are released.