Here comes another referendum no one will understand

Be careful what petitions you sign, that’s my advice.

A political action committee is launching a petition drive Sunday aimed at limiting how much city contractors and vendors can contribute to municipal candidates, marking the start of a month-long effort to gather enough signatures to put the so-called anti-pay-to-play measure on Houston’s November ballot.

The drive is for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, that would amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Houston’s campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give candidates up to $5,000 every two years. Committees can contribute a maximum of $10,000 during the same span.

The amendment would further prohibit city board and commission members, as well as sexually-oriented business owners, from giving candidates any campaign money.


To put it on the ballot, the PAC — called “End Pay to Play” — must gather about 40,000 signatures from registered Houston voters within a 30-day window ending July 8. The city secretary would then verify the signatures, prompting city council to vote on holding an election to coincide with the Nov. 5 municipal contests.

We’ll see if this thing gets enough signatures in the allotted time. Collecting a sufficient amount of valid signatures takes resources, which is to say volunteers and/or paid canvassers. I don’t know how much grassroots energy exists for something like this, but I’ll be sure to look at the “End Pay to Play” PAC finance reports to see how they’re spending their money.

I have some questions about this. First of all, it sure seems to me like there may be some constitutional issues with the prohibitions this would impose. Last I checked, the First Amendment did not exclude strip club owners from the right to express their political beliefs. In a post-Citizens United world, where money is speech and corporations are people, it’s not clear to me that this would stand up to legal scrutiny. One possible outcome here is that not only is that provision struck down, but other parts of Houston’s campaign finance laws could be endangered. It’s not that long ago that the fundraising blackout rule got tossed by a federal judge. The potential here for unintended consequences is greater than zero.

I would also note that by going through the referendum process, this proposal will not get vetted by the legislative process. There will be no public hearings, no opportunities for Council members to ask questions or put forth amendments. I would argue that this is how you get a firefighter pay parity law passed that had no mechanism to pay for it (never mind the later ruling that it violated state law). There are times when the direct approach works well, and for sure there have been referenda that I have supported, such as Renew Houston, for which this criticism would also apply. Bill King, for one, has been critical of Renew Houston for this reason, among others. Here, though, King is actually running for Mayor, and it would be well within his capability if he wins to hand an ordinance for Council to vote on to do what’s in this referendum. Maybe he’s hedging his bets, maybe he just doesn’t want to get Council involved. Or, you know, maybe he sees a political advantage in taking this approach.

(Note that Bill King has taken it upon himself to crusade against campaign contributions from strip club owners. In case you were wondering why that particular legally questionable provision is in the petition, and why I say this is King working to his own advantage.)

(I know it’s a tedious bit of whataboutism, but Greg Abbott has made a career out of rewarding his campaign supporters. He went so far as to endorse the primary opponent of the Republican legislator who authored a bill that would have restricted this practice of Abbott’s. One can engage in government as one sees fit, but if there were evidence that, say, Bill King had encouraged people to email their State Rep in support of that bill, I might be a tad bit less cynical about his motives here.)

(The story notes that King himself used to be a player in this system that he now decries, as a partner at Linebarger Goggan. For this, I have no criticism of him. People are allowed to change their minds, and no one has to have a specific road to Damascus moment to do so. If he says he now regrets what he once did, I take him at his word. There’s plenty of room for me to snipe at his actions, as you can see.)

(No, I don’t know why I put all these last paragraphs in parentheses. Once I got started, it kind of built on itself. I’ll stop now.)

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t review our campaign finance and ethics ordinances. I just think we should do it in a more deliberative and rigorous process that ensures that the final product is compliant with existing federal law. I would also note that even outside that concern, we should be careful about how we regulate campaign contributions. If we make it harder for regular candidates to raise money for their campaigns, one effect of that will be that it confers an advantage to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns. I for one don’t think that’s much of an improvement.

Anyway. If you get accosted at the Kroger parking lot to sign a petition, please do be sure to know what it’s about before you affix your autograph. I personally would not sign this, but your mileage may vary.

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11 Responses to Here comes another referendum no one will understand

  1. Jules says:

    Ha! Those parentheses were bugging me. :). Is Bill King self-financed?

  2. Greg Wythe says:

    I sure hope that King’s newfound commitment to transparency includes requiring his petition collectors to truthfully inform signers who is paying for the collection campaign. That’s more than can be said of the Prop B petition campaign.

  3. Christopher Busby says:

    The provision blocking contributions by sexually oriented business owners from making political contributions is blatantly unconstitutional and it’s inclusion is odd to say the least. Sexually oriented businesses are highly regulated and legal. Restricting someone’s political contribution based on a legally regulated business would be struck down in everything but the most biased of judiciaries. If sexually oriented businesses make you feel icky there is a simple solution- don’t frequent them.

  4. Paul Kubosh says:

    I will be surprised if they get the signatures. If Bill King wanted to run a Petition Drive to help his Mayor’s race this is not the way to do it. I believe (I could be wrong) that he is using the Mammoth Group to run this Petition Drive. The Democrats on this board should really like the Mammoth Group they list as their clients Culberson and Harris County Republican Party as their clients.

    Just in case you forgot Culberson got clobbered and the Harris County Republican Party lost Harris County.

    Of course Bill King wanted nothing to do with the people who actually collected the signatures to put the HERO initiative on the ballot.

    We shall see if I am right.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Christopher has made the exact comment I would have made. I mean, why not prohibit contributions from any business that sells wood ducks? That would be just as arbitrary and capricious. Because of this one proviso, the whole thing is a waste of time because it would be thrown out in short order. Maybe the whole point is not to get a new law passed, but rather to just virtue signal about the issue of pay to play?

  6. Greg says:

    I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were against limits on campaign donations.

  7. Joel says:

    Pros can always get the signatures. Last summer I was accosted by a petitioner in Austin outside a city run swimming pool. They were collecting signatures to cut/audit the city budget – and they got the signatures!

  8. C.L. says:

    I’ve got a proposal – immediately fire a City employee who’s operating a personal business on the side but doing it doing the hours the City’s paying for (Darian Ward), and immediately fire a City employee who’s cooking the books when it comes to taking non-accrued vacation days and/or on active or reserve duty at the same time they’re receiving a CoH salary with some flimsy story about broken bones (Daniel Albert).

    As far as this proposal goes, I’m all for it. Drop the $5K max contribution to $500 for folks on the receiving end of government contracts. I don’t see where the proposal prohibits contributions, just limits them, when it comes to that group. No sure why Erotica, Adam and Eve, or Gold Cup would be prohibited from donating, though.

  9. Manny says:

    It won’t solve anything unless you stop PACs from doing their thing that benefits a candidate. They just move the money around and get the same results.

  10. Paul Kubosh says:

    C.l. is Gold Cup still in business?

  11. C.L. says:

    @Paul… good question…. Manny ?

    (Manny, I jest. I know you’d never patronize such a business of ill repute. 🙂 )

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