I know that most of you are aware that those with special interests before governmental entities disproportionately make campaign contributions. But I think you may be shocked at the degree to which such contributions truly dominate political fundraising.

I recently pulled the campaign finance reports for one particular Houston City Council member for the last five years. I am not going to identify the council member because that member’s contributions would not be substantially different from the other members.

Over the five years, the council member raised over $220,000. Of this amount, at least 86% came from special interests. The largest share came from contractors and vendors doing business with the City at 42%. Real estate interests which have regulatory issues before the City came in second at 19%. Unions representing City employees were third at 17%, and other regulated companies (e.g. utilities and cab companies) made up 14%. Only 16% of the member’s contribution came from what appear to be ordinary residents, although there are likely some special interests even in that small slice that I did not recognize.

 

If we looked at elected officials and candidates at every level of government in Texas we would see much the same sort of breakdown.

Texas is far behind the rest of the country in addressing this issue. In many states, both at the state and local level, there are “pay-to-play” laws that prohibit or severely limit campaign contributions from those who do business with or are regulated by the particular governmental entity. I have not been able to find a comprehensive survey, but Texas is notably absent or underrepresented in on-line discussion about pay-to-play laws.

Ideally, the Texas Legislature would take up this issue and either prohibit or restrict contributions from special interests. But as we all know, ethics are not our Legislature’s long suit. The Center for Public Integrity gives Texas a D- ethics grade.[Click here to read study.].  And we recently learned that one Houston lawmaker was getting paid bonuses to lobby a state agency for money for his employer. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath while we wait for the Legislature to act.

But there is something that we could do here locally. The City of Houston has an anemic “pay-to-play” provision which prohibits vendors from making contributions from the time their proposed contract is posted on the Council agenda until 30 days after approval. That narrow window is, of course, completely meaningless.

But we could amend the City charter to include a “pay-to-play” prohibition with real teeth. Of course, Council will never put such a proposed amendment before the voters and derail their gravy train. So, we would have to go through the petition process. But we have done it before to stop Council from unreasonably raising property taxes every year. We could do it again.

Who’s up for this?

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