Thursday, May 30, 2024 May 30, 2024
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The Lobby Machine

The people who really make the laws in Texas were never elected.

HOUSE SPEAKER Billy Clayton has to travel a greal deal every year. So to save himself the trouble of having to fly commercial, Clayton rents a private jet to whisk him around the state. He leases the jet from himself, which puts several hundred grand in his pocket every year.

But Clayton doesn’t pay for the jet himself, and the state of Texas certainly doesn’t shell out the money for Clayton’s luxurious travel requirements. Clayton’s jet -and numerous other of the Speaker’s yearly expenses -comes from a convenient source of funds that is utilized by almost every legislator in Austin: the officeholder account.

Clayton has more than $400,000 sitting in certificates of deposit in his officeholder account, which, in the words of one Legislature critic, is; a “legalized slush fund.” Anyone can contribute to an officeholder account, but not everyone does. Most people don’t even know they exist.

But Lobby members know, and they run over each other trying to make contributions to influential officeholders like Clayton, a tried and true friend of the Lobby. Clayton’s officeholder account list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of corporate Texas. Bankers, realtors, car dealers, oil and gas executives, insurance executives -have all contributed to Clayton’s account through their friendly, local political action committees (PACs), the funding arm of Texas corporations.

Political action committees evolved after the Sharpstown reforms in 1973, which limited campaign contributions, outlawed outright contributions from corporations, and strengthened contribution reporting laws. They contribute millions every year to their favorite legislators’ campaigns. The leftover campaign money is then socked away into officeholder accounts. Or, they can make contributions directly to the officeholder account of their choice. There are no restrictions.

“If you were a legislator, you could send your kids to college from the money in your officeholder account,” says Jim Hightower, a lobbyist for the Texas Consumers Association. So Clayton doesn’t have to gouge taxpayers for his private plane. The corporations are more than happy to pay for it for him. And in allowing them to do so, Clayton isn’t doing anything illegal.

“The important point in Texas politics is what goes on legally,” Hightower says. “The lobbyists don’t have to wink and place a bag of money on Clayton’s desk. They don’t have to do that because they paid for his election.”

The corporate Lobby in Texas doesn’t leave legislation to chance. Support for their bills is bought and amply paid for – with campaign contributions, deposits in officeholder accounts, expensive dinners in Austin’s most exclusive restaurants and clubs, and out-of-town trips.

Clayton isn’t the only legislator, of course, who takes full advantage of all the goodies offered by the Lobby.

Chris Semos, a Democrat from Oak Cliff and the senior member of the Dallas delegation, had the most active officeholder account of any Dallas legislator last year. It reflected his devotion to Clayton and Lobby objectives. Among the items Semos charged to the account were $51.80 for a year’s subscription to the Orthodox Observer, a publication of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. Semos, who owns The Torch restaurant in Oak Cliff, is a member of the church. The Lobby also paid for Semos’ subscription to the Times Herald, paid his dues to the Texas Restaurant Association (an active lobby group), and footed the bills for almost $1000 worth of travel around the state for the Texas Sesquicentennial Commission, a ceremonial committee that has nothing to do with the Legislature and which Semos chairs. The commission is planning activities for the 150th anniversary of the Republic of Texas in 1986. In all, Semos’ account is worth at least $10,000, and most of it is tied up in certificates of deposit that bring a nice return.

Lee Jackson, a third-term Republican from northeast Dallas, withdrew more than $700 from his account this year to attend Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in Washington. He later returned the money when his inaugural trip was canceled. Jackson’s account showed contributions last year from the Association of Builders and Contractors PAC, and his account’s certificate of deposit accrued several hundred dollars worth of interest. Bill Ceverha, another North Dallas Republican, withdrew $450 from his account for “inaugural events, hotel accommodations, and dinner for guests.”

Legislators argue that they don’t pay attention to campaign contributions, and PAC support has no bearing on how they vote. For someone like Bob Davis, that statement is probably true. He doesn’t have to pay attention to contributors to his easy victories because every major corporate PAC gave to his 1980 campaign. He received contributions from more PACs than any of his Dallas County colleagues last year.

Among those groups that contributed to Davis’ campaign were PACs represented in the Capitol by the Texas Association of Bank Holding Companies and the Texas Consumer Finance Association. Both groups are pushing a measure this session that would raise the interest rate ceiling to 24 per cent. It’s a measure that Davis supports. Davis also voted last session for the $25 documentary fee that car dealers asked be tacked on to every car sale in the state. He voted for the fee during the same session that the car dealers paid for a Davis trip to Lake Tahoe, where he addressed a national gathering of auto dealers. Davis was compensated for that, too. And when Davis wanted to treat the members of his House Ways and Means Committee to decorative office barometers, he was spared the expense and the shopping trouble. He just asked his lobbyist friends to foot the bill. They did, and Clayton now has a handsome barometer hanging on the wall of his Capitol office.

“There was much ado about nothing concerning those barometers,” Davis says innocently. “Who’s going to be bought off for a barometer?”

During his five terms in the Legislature, Davis says he’s cultivated a lot of personal friendships among lobbyists, and those friendships have nothing to do with his job – or theirs. A lot of reporters mistake gifts and trips from his personal friends for political influence peddling, Davis explains. “Personal friendships don’t have anything to do with politics,” Davis says. “If someone said, ’Let’s go somewhere,’ I might say, ’Yes, if my wife can come, too.’ Don’t you let your friends take you somewhere if they ask?”

Besides, Davis says, he would support legislation that benefits corporate interests whether they supported him or not. “I look at legislation from the standpoint of economic impact,” he explains. “My view is going to be on the side of the economic forces that make this state productive.” Big business, in other words.

Garland’s freshman Sen. Dee Travis pleads a similar case.

“I’m very pro-business and would be whether they supported me or my opponent. I don’t pay much attention to that,” Travis says.

Both Davis and Travis can plead ignorance about big business support if they want. Neither of them has ever had to worry about putting together a campaign without big bucks from big business. More than 50 per cent of Travis’ campaign against Ron Clower was contributed by eight industries. Clower received minimal PAC support and was badly outspent by Travis. Davis outspent his Democratic opponent by almost 2-to-l. When the Lobby’s man is challenged, they come charging to the rescue, like a modern-day cavalry with an open checkbook.

The Lobby’s chief man in Austin is, of course, Clayton. Lobby interests have helped him get where he is today, and he has repaid the favor by making life more comfortable for his favorite lobbies in committee and on the House floor. Lobbyists aren’t allowed on the floor itself, but they often have more clout there than some liberal representatives.

Those who don’t support the Speaker don’t get campaign funds. Those in Austin – or those who have their eye on the Capitol-who doubt that political axiom have seen it proven this year beyond any doubt.

Last year, Rep. John Bryant, a Pleasant Grove Democrat, did more than just oppose the Speaker on philosophical grounds. When Bryant challenged Clayton after the Brilab indictments, he came close to toppling the whole Lobby system and dismantling the Team. His tactics were not appreciated by the Speaker or his friends. Come election time last November-when Davis was receiving thousands from the automobile dealers, the mortgage bankers, and the savings and loan associations-Bryant received nothing. While Davis received money from more corporate PACs than any candidate in Dallas County, Bryant received contributions from only five. But he recorded more contributions from private citizens than any of his Dallas County colleagues. Bryant’s largest contribution was $250.

But the Lobby is uneasy this session. Even though the Speaker, the Team, and the Lobby returned to Austin in January intact, Clayton’s indictment and acquittal has fostered a small reform movement among legislators. Even Clayton has proposed some ethics legislation that, in effect, would have made the Brilab contributions completely legal if he had reported them.

Clayton’s proposals don’t make Donna Mobley of Common Cause very happy. She’s afraid Clayton and the Team will adopt an ineffective form of ethics legislation. Then they’ll wipe their hands of the whole ethics mess, go home, and happily tell their constituents that they stand on the side of campaign reform. With that done, they’ll start raking in the corporate campaign contributions, and the whole process will be repeated.

“We’ve had to change our approach tolobbying this session,” Hightower admits.”The cards were redealt last year and theLobby was dealt the biggest hand. Wecan’t counter it.”