Texas House Holds Opaque Hearing on Campaign Finance Transparency

Texas House Holds Opaque Hearing on Campaign Finance Transparency

In a pointedly unusual move, Texas House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) held a hearing on transparency in campaign finance disclosure that was somewhat opaque in its own transparency.  With a clear agenda in mind, Chairman Cook held a committee hearing to look into changes to Texas election laws regarding campaign contributions but apparently, the invitation-only event heard testimony from one side of the issue.

The hearing, which lasted over four hours, opened with testimony from the chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, Jim Clancy.  Clancy testified about the technical definitions of individuals, committees, contributions and expenditures. Much of the testimony revolved around the phrase “a political purpose.”  He testified that a person who is in the direct expenditure category does not have to disclose donors, while a “political committee” has to report both donors and expenditures.

He was followed by Utah State Representative James Dunnigan (R-Taylorsville, UT) who discussed the election of his state’s attorney general and the role paid by out of state political committees who were not disclosing the source of their donations. The attorney general who was elected, later resigned because of the issue.

The issue is being revisited because of Governor Rick Perry’s veto of SB 346 at the end of the last session.  At the time, Gov. Perry said the bill would have a “chilling effect” on First Amendment rights. 

Prior to the hearing, in a message posted on his Facebook page, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, “Today the Texas Legislature is holding a hearing on requiring outside groups to disclose their donors to engage in political speech. That would be a disastrous policy that would unconstitutionally chill free speech.”

Cruz went on to compare Cook’s tactics to those of President Obama. 

“President Obama and U.S. Senate Democrats have been trying to enact this wrongheaded law for years at the federal level,” Cruz stated. “And the IRS just received 150,000 comments overwhelmingly against its proposed rules to force groups to disclose their donors. The Texas Legislature should not enact these pernicious laws at the state level.”

In a statement from Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, Sullivan fired back at Chairman Cook stating, “The TEC and Byron Cook have chosen to make Texas ground zero in a national effort to suppress speech. In doing so, they have chosen to join with the Obama administration and establishment liberals in violating the Constitution. We did not choose this fight, but we will win it.”

Requiring non-profit organizations to disclose their donors can have a suppressing effect on the organizations’ ability to raise funds, according to critics. If the donations become public, people who would support an organization’s cause might be pressured to not make contributions, they argue.

Legislation like that proposed in SB 346 last session could turn the Texas Ethics Commission into an enforcement arm for elected officials who feel threatened by the free speech of private citizens. As an example, Texas State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff (a paid Microsoft lobbyist at the time) has filed two complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission against a stay-at-home mom, Alice Linahan, who dared to speak out against CSCOPE and Common Core. Linahan was accused of improperly acting as a lobbyist herself.

Other groups expressing displeasure with Chairman Cook’s one-sided hearing at a press conference include Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values; JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America and two-term chairman of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee; Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum; Jim and Elizabeth Graham, directors of Texas Right to Life; and Tim Lambert, president of Texas Home School Coalition. 

“The rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech are fundamental to a free society,” Saenz said, “and should be preserved at all costs. Across the country, these constitutional rights are being assaulted by an activist government and its enablers that seek to silence and intimidate faith-based non-profits and their donors for opposing efforts to redefine marriage. We must reject attempts to bring these Obama IRS tactics to Texas that would punish those who support marriage and religious freedom.”

Adams, who formerly served as chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said, “When both legislative chambers passed a bill that would unconstitutionally target Texas non-profit organizations for political retribution, it was commendable that Gov. Perry vetoed the bill, SB 346. In keeping with the real intention of political retribution, the Committee Chairman didn’t even invite testimony of the groups participating in this press conference. Political retribution is ugly. And I sure hope the courts will STOP the Ethics Commission’s targeting of non-profit groups that simply want to practice our freedom of expression.”

The video of the entire one-sided hearing will be available, once posted, on the Texas Legislature’s Video Archive website.

Follow Bob Price on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX