Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Money games Texas legislators play

Thanks much to Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune for these reports on the financial chicanery being vigorously exercised in Austin.  First, your primer on the machinations involved with reporting, raising, and spending the money donated to our state senators and representatives from 'concerned citizens'.  Let's move on after that to this: it's not a bribe if it's a gift.

What might look like a bribe to you could actually be a free and perfectly legal ticket to a rock concert, or dinner and drinks at a renowned Austin restaurant for a top state official.

“This is legalized bribery — it creates an actual exemption to the bribery statute,” says Paul Hobby, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission. “Why do we legally allow any bribery? I just think we should have that conversation with ourselves.”

It's called "chickenshit makes the best fertilizer", Mr. Hobby.

You can violate the state’s bribery law by offering or accepting (or even just agreeing to offer or accept) any benefits in return for decisions, votes or recommendations by a public servant. There is an exception, though, for “a gift, award, or memento to a member of the legislature or executive branch” that lobbyists are legally required to report. Short form: If the law requires lobbyists to report buying the meal or the gift or whatever, it is a boon and not a bribe.

The exemption in the bribery statute covers the kinds of gifts you might imagine — everything from paperweights to saddles to engraved pen and pencil sets. It also covers entertainment, food, beverages and, in certain situations, travel and lodging for legislators.

It functions like any other loophole, providing an escape from a taboo: Lobbyists and others are allowed to give gifts to legislators that, without this special provision in the law, would constitute illegal bribery.

Notice we aren't making any distinction between political parties, their associated consultants, lobbyists, or political advisers.  This is a bipartisan initiative.

If you go to a concert when lawmakers are in town, chances are good that you’ll see lawmakers there, many of them sitting with the lobbyists who paid for their tickets. You’ll also see some, to be fair, who just wanted to go to a concert and opened their own wallets to get there. Maybe they like music without the added perk of sitting next to someone who wants to sell them a public policy idea.

Entertainment opportunities abound in Austin while the 84th Legislature is in its regular session this year: Fleetwood Mac will be at the Erwin Center on March 1, and Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, The Who, Los Lobos, and Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga are all scheduled to perform in April.

When lobbyists file their reports every month, Texans are able to see how much money is being spent on this sort of thing, often without finding out who benefited. Lobbyists have to report all of their spending. They do not have to connect the names of lawmakers (or their immediate families) to the spending unless they go over a certain amount.

And while there's much more you should read at the second link above, this lets us segue into the reporting requirement contortions that the lobby class performs to avoid naming names.

You’ve split the check before, right? Gone into a restaurant with someone and cut the bill in half to share the expense?

That’s not how splitting works for lobbyists when Texas lawmakers and other state officials are at the table.
When lobbyists split the dinner tab at an expensive restaurant or after a pricey bottle of wine, it's not so the officeholders in attendance can pay their own share. It's so the lobbyists can stay under the state’s name-that-legislator limit.

Right now, that’s $90. If a lobbyist spends less than that amount entertaining a lawmaker, the lobbyist doesn’t have to name the lawmaker in the spending report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. If it’s over $90, the names of the beneficiaries go in the reports, where the public can see them. 

Which is how we wind up with shit like this.

Don't try to read that; go here.  There's also a bigger version of that receipt embedded in the link in the following excerpt.

One lobbyist can spend $90, two can spend $180, three can spend $270 and so on. If the new numbers are approved, that jumps to $114, $228 and $342.

Sometimes it happens on a grand scale. At the end of the 2013 legislative session, a $22,241 dinner for the House Calendars Committee at an Austin steakhouse was paid for with 65 different credit cards. The tab indicated that 121 people were fed and watered, but does not detail how many of them were legislators. The attendees got the mix right, if the object was to hide the names of the lawmakers who were there. The lobbyists reported their spending — for most, it was $340.07 — but didn’t have to name their official guests. They apparently had enough state officials in attendance to keep each lobbyist’s spending per person under the name-the-legislator trigger.

Are you getting your money's worth from your state reps?  Do you believe your political contributions are being well invested?  Are we getting better government this way?  Are we even getting good government this way?

The excuses made for this sort of behavior include a mashup of: 'well, since legislators are only paid a small amount for their service, the per-diems have to be bigger, and besides they're lower than the IRS allows, so that's good'.

No, it isn't.  Only wealthy people can afford to serve in the Lege -- doctors, lawyers, business executives -- essentially the class of person who can afford to have a second home (even if it's just an apartment) to live in Austin while they take six months every two years away from their jobs.  Once upon a time these were mostly farmers and ranchers, of course.  Things have changed a little, but not all that much.  Texas is still ruled mostly by the 1%, has been nearly all of its existence.  The extremes have just gotten more, ah, extreme.

Is it any surprise then that Democratic voter turnout -- you know, the party that is at least supposed to pretend to be for the little guy -- has fallen to depths not seen since the Great Depression?  We can call the electorate dumb for failing to participate in the game, but they might be smart enough to have figured out that they're the ones being played.  If you were a Texan struggling to make ends meet, and you saw how the men and women who make your laws live, would you think you could have any influence in changing that by voting?

That's the thing about lawmakers — they can change the laws they don't want. Their conversation might sparkle, their looks might dazzle, but it is that power to change the state’s laws that makes them such attractive dinner companions.

Their efforts fall short sometimes, but you can tell a lot about what they think and believe by what they choose to debate and what changes they try to make. Even when they fail, there is a battle to tell the rest of us that someone, somewhere, thought there was something wrong with the existing order of things. But not here.

Property tax cuts, business tax cuts, campus carry, open carry, but not Medicaid expansion and no woman has the right to decide whether or not she will have a baby.  She's not even going to be able to get a cancer screening from Planned Parenthood if they have anything to say about it.  And don't try to stop those fracking wells down the block, and don't ban plastic bags at the supermarket.  Who do you think you are?

See, they really don't give a damn about you, and that's at least partly because you don't give enough of a damn to vote.  In other words, it's a catch-22.  Who's going to start giving a damn first?  I can assure you it won't be the members of the Lege or those catering to them.

1 comment:

TXsharon said...

If we can't stop this, we will never have any control over our government.