October 31, 2008
The argument for campaign finance reform in Texas, in a nutshell

Item: Texans for Lawsuit Reform rents a candidate.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a business group instrumental in winning significant restrictions on civil lawsuits, has endorsed two candidates -- Republican Joan Huffman of Southside Place and Democrat Stephanie Simmons of Missouri City -- for the District 17 state Senate seat.

Although TLR normally gives more money to Republicans than Democrats, its political action committee so far has given no money to Huffman, a former state district judge, but is largely underwriting Simmons' campaign, her first for public office.

Some 74 percent of the $273,586 Simmons reported raising through Sunday came from TLR. The business group has given the political novice $17,500 in cash and donated another $184,000 in-kind for direct mail and survey research.

Item: House Speaker Tom Craddick spends a lot of cash, maintains even more.

Craddick, R-Midland, has done a lot to help other Republicans, Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said. Craddick has transferred more than $1.1 million from his campaign account to his Stars Over Texas political action committee to help GOP candidates.

Let's dispense with the obvious first: Without TLR, there is no Stephanie Simmons campaign for SD17. In her detailed report, she has a total of eight donors who are not TLR or not named Simmons. Of the $27K or so raised this period from those remaining donors (this story combines the 8-day-out total with the 30-day out total), $25K of it comes from two people - $15K from the previously-noted Jeff Sandefur, and $10K from Hank DeShazer, who appears to be Simmons' employer.

I don't know about you, but I have a problem with candidates whose funding comes from a small set of sources. Who do you think they're going to answer to when they get elected? Of course, Simmons' purpose here isn't to get elected. TLR, which is a Republican PAC, has Joan Huffman in mind for that. No, like a panelist on "Hollywood Squares", her purpose is to block Chris Bell. I don't know if she's been on board with that plan from the beginning or if she's being scammed by TLR and Ron Wilson, but that's the role she's playing here.

As for Craddick, the story I cited expresses surprise that he's sitting on so much money when his tenure as Speaker may be at stake, but make no mistake. He's spending plenty of money in a variety of races, along with his cronies. A bunch of candidates who had lousy 30-day reports, like Ken Legler and Bryan Daniel, are suddenly awash in cash thanks to the largesse of Craddick and crew. One wonders how much effect a few late-dropping mail pieces and TV/radio ads will have at the tail end of this ponderously long election cycle, but better to have them than not.

There was a time when I thought the problem was too much money in campaigns. I don't believe that any more, but I do still think there's a problem with too much money from a small number of sources having a disproportionate effect on too many campaigns. I'd like to see the rules geared towards encouraging candidates to broaden their donor base and not to rely too much on the fat cats and lobbyists and their PACs. I would not advocate for a McCain/Feingold solution for Texas, as I think that is not the best approach, but I don't see any problem with putting some kind of limit on how much any individual person or PAC can give in a single year to any candidate or other PAC. I never bought the campaign-contributions-as-free-speech argument against McCain/Feingold, but even if you do accept it I don't see how limiting an individual to (say) a maximum of $500,000 in total contributions to state candidates in the course of a calendar year seriously infringes anyone's rights. I'd put a similar limit on donating to PACs, and limit PACs to doling out a max of a million bucks in any given year as well. The numbers aren't carved in stone, and whatever figures you prefer should have some kind of annual inflation adjustment, but I think the concept is valid. There needs to be some limit to the amount of influence the big players can wield.

On the other end of the scale, I'd also support some kind of system that provided matching funds for small-dollar donations. Again, the specific numbers aren't as important as the idea of incentivizing that kind of fundraising as opposed to the sugar daddy system we have now. If we know one thing from this year, it's that small donors can provide plenty of fuel for the right campaign. I'd like to see more of that.

Of course, I don't expect to see any of this ever happen, and if someone were foolish enough to attempt a serious run at in the Lege, they'd have a huge target hung on their back by the very forces who'd lose out under this. But it's what I think should happen, and if I can't have hope for that kind of change now, when can I have it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 31, 2008 to Election 2008
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