Texas politicians can be influenced by two financial sources: campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures.
During the Texas legislative session, state law prohibits campaign contributions to legislators. This is designed to prevent donors and PACs from currying favor with legislators while they are casting votes. For example, if you wanted to donate to the campaign of your House representative, you are not allowed to do so until after the session ends in late May. Theoretically, this prevents you from using campaign cash to influence how your representative votes.
Although campaign contributions must stop during the legislative session, another financial influence pops up: lobbyists. Remember, the whole purpose of lobbyists is to represent another person or entity and to get paid to influence legislation.
Under current Texas law, lobbyists are only required to engage in “detailed reporting” (disclosing individual names of lawmakers and family members who benefit from lobbyists’ “wining and dining”) when such expenditures cross a specific threshold: 60% of the “legislative per diem.” The legislative per diem is an amount set by the Texas Ethics Commission and paid by the state to legislators for each day they spend in Austin on official business. The per diem is considered reimbursement for lawmakers’ “room and board” travel expenses.
For the 2017 legislative session, the per diem is set at $190.00/day.*
Currently, lobbyists are only required to report the names of elected officials on whom they spend money (for food, beverages, entertainment, lodging, etc.) when a one-day expenditure exceeds 60% of $190.00 (or $114.00). There are problems with the amount being this high. For example, a lobbyist could treat four state representatives to dinner, spend $100 on each of them, and never have to report the names of the legislators.
Senate Bill 14 (SB14) by State Senator Van Taylor, which was recently passed by the Texas Senate and sent to the Texas House, attempts to improve transparency by cutting the reporting threshold in half. Under SB14, lobbyists would be required to report money spent on individual recipients at 30% ($57.00 or more) of the legislative per diem.
SB14 is likely to become law, for several reasons: (1) The bill has already passed in the Texas Senate, (2) Governor Greg Abbott listed government ethics reform as an emergency item; and (3) most of the provisions in SB14 enjoy bipartisan support. There are no guarantees however, as a similar bill died in the House during the last legislative session. At the time, Chairman Byron Cook and State Representative Charlie Geren altered the bill by adding regulations on private citizens instead of simply leaving the focus on elected officials. Because of these additions, the Senate abandoned their bill, and Gov. Abbott chastised the House.
State Reps. Cook and Geren are once again powerful committee chairs in the House, so it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself during this legislative session. Citizens advocating for more open, honest governance would likely hope for the bill to pass. A win for SB 14 could be a win for transparency in Texas.
*Since this article was originally published the Texas Ethics Commission increased legislators’ per diem allowance to $221. This created a corresponding increase in the amount a lobbyist can spend on a legislator per day without having to report it to $132.60.
Our How It Works series pulls back the curtain on the inter-workings of state government by identifying who’s involved, defining what they do, and explaining the motivations behind their actions.