February 23, 2007
Rent to own, Lege-style

The Star Telegram takes a close look at why some legislators love the concept of separate property.

It's illegal for Texas lawmakers to use campaign funds to buy real estate or enrich themselves, but several legislators have used a loophole to maintain second homes in Austin while continuing to receive $139 a day for living expenses when called to duty in the state capital.

One of them, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, has paid rent of more than $140,000 since 2000 for a condo registered in her husband's name.

The Star-Telegram reviewed the Austin lodging arrangements of all 181 Texas legislators and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, focusing in particular on housing payments.

The controversial practice contributed to the defeat of two senior House Republicans last year, including former state Rep. Toby Goodman of Arlington. State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, also announced last week that she would, at least temporarily, quit paying rent to her husband for an Austin condo listed in his name.

Nelson and state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, now appear to be the only two legislators continuing to make such payments. The details of Brimer's housing arrangement are no secret in Austin. He helped pioneer the practice, and other lawmakers have cited the Ethics Commission decision in his case.

But the discreet nature of Nelson's transactions, and the absence of any Travis County real estate on financial disclosure reports provided by the Texas Ethics Commission, have kept them from public view.

Records show Nelson has paid $147,500 since 2000 to lease a condominium registered in her husband's name in the exclusive Westgate Building, which several Austin lobbyists and power brokers, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, call home.

It's a good piece and there's a lot to it, so just go read the whole thing. And when you do, remember that Muse and Coby were on it first, months ago.

I still think the most sensible solution here is to acknowledge that being a legislator is a fulltime job and should be compensated as such. Give them a real salary, and put real clamps on how campaign money can be spent, with real enforcement powers and real penalties for breaking the law. And maybe instead of the per diem, do a corporate card/expense reimbursement system, where someone has to approve the expenses or they don't get paid. That's pretty standard for the business world, and it seems to work fairly well. Nothing is perfect, and there may be some angle I'm overlooking, but it seems to me that if the goal is to limit expenditures of campaign donations to actual campaign expenses, you have to start by making it possible to live on what one earns as a legislator. Hal has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 23, 2007 to Scandalized!

Please, for heaven's sake don't push for full-time legislators in Texas. Then they'll insist on full-time legislating. They do plenty of damage in 140 days once every two years, thank you very much.

Besides, having them in session year in and year out would mean only the professional lobby has influence. Right now, there's more grassroots input in Texas legislation than most folks give credit for, and that would quickly dissipate in a year-round slog. The short time frame allows for focused efforts to pass or kill bills that can't necessarily be sustained in the long haul without DEEP pockets.

On the question at hand, that's why God created elections. Tell the voters in '08, then let them decide if they care. best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on February 23, 2007 8:51 AM

Don't worry, I'm not pushing for that. Just for the recognition that at even 140 days every other year - plus special sessions, plus committee hearings, plus campaigning, plus constituent services - this is a fulltime job and should be compensated as such. The benefit of that is that it can push campaign contribution money to where it belongs, in campaigns and not in real estate.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on February 23, 2007 9:23 AM

2 days every 140 years. Who's with me?

Posted by: Michael on February 23, 2007 12:35 PM

Yeah, that's always the argument that it's good that they not meet every year. That's why they need to get rid of that per diem so they can be paid a decent salary, and then, as you say, get a lock on campaign contributions and expenditures. I like that idea about a company credit card. Have the monthly statements sent right to the TEC so they can OK the allowed expenses and nix the $1500 boots and such.

Posted by: Hal on February 26, 2007 6:07 PM