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Sponsored by…

Today is Inauguration Day in Texas, and like many things here and elsewhere it’s being brought to you by the generosity of a variety of corporate sponsors.

Atop the list of contributors is ACS, a Dallas-based government services firm awarded a contract last year to become the state’s primary Medicaid contractor; telecommunications giant AT&T; and Philip Morris, which has a former lobbyist now serving as Perry’s chief of staff.

They were among nine “Gold Underwriters” that contributed $50,000 each to help pay for the inauguration, which includes a downtown parade.

Sixteen companies and individuals made $25,000 “Silver”-level contributions, including Houston-based Reliant Energy; TXU, a Dallas-based electrical provider; and the Houston-based law firms of Fulbright & Jaworski and Vinson & Elkins. Forty-one others gave $10,000 each.

On the one hand, I have to applaud not using state money to pay for an essentially private party, especially in a lean budget year. On the other hand, $1.5 million is chickenfeed (0.015% of the projected $10 billion shortfall) and it would avoid any appearance of impropriety if this shindig were underwritten by someone other than these not-exactly-disinterested parties. Surely in a state where the likes of Bo Pilgrim have been known to hand out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor just before a vote that affected his business came up, one can understand why suspicious minds may do a little gritching about this.

I’ll stipulate that people would also get crabby if the Inauguration were publicly funded – indeed, I might be one of those crabs if I thought the planners were a bit too free with the funding. Overall, though, I think that’s a much lesser concern.

Companies say political contributions are part of doing business in the state, and that every inauguration, for both Democrats and Republicans, has had corporate sponsors.

“I’ve been around here since ’85, and it’s the way it’s always been,” said Bill Miller, a consultant whose firm lobbies for AT&T. “It’s the way it’ll always be.”

I’m sure that’s true, which is why you haven’t seen me type the name of any political party in this post. It’s still a bad idea.

Kathy Walt, a Perry spokeswoman, said corporate sponsors, by helping underwrite the costs, are making the inauguration more affordable.

“These companies and individuals are helping sponsor inaugural festivities so that the cost to attend can be lowered for Texans from all across the state,” she said.

Audrey Rowe, spokeswoman for ACS, said the $50,000 contribution is among the firm’s myriad political and philanthropic activities as corporate citizens.

“If there are a few concerns that this contribution is giving us access, that is an incorrect perception,” she said.

Since the pundit class is often accused of pointing out problems without offering constructive solutions, I want to make a suggestion as to how to make a corporate-sponsored event like this more palatable to me: Require all of the inaugurees to wear jumpsuits containing corporate-logo patches of all of the sponsors, NASCAR style. In addition, display large banners that spells out who paid for what – “This barbecue stand is brought to you by a generous grant from ACS, the worldwide leader in government services”. If we’re so damn proud of our underwriters and how they help serve the public good, then let’s be up front about it.

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