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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

No More Pay To Play

It was extremely encouraging to read the day after the election that the number one motivating force for voters this year was the issue of ethics and corruption. It out-polled the war in Iraq! Over 40 percent of the people interviewed for CNN's exit poll said they considered ethics and corruption in government extremely important. It's about time.

For a long while, I wondered if people would ever wake up to what was happening around them. It seemed that voters had read so many stories about corrupt conduct among elected officials that they had just come to accept it as politics as usual. And the media wasn't a whole lot better. They seemed to have the attitude that since it happened all the time and no one was doing much about it, they didn't need to do much about it either. The articles I found particularly troubling were those citing a controversial vote being cast by a lawmaker that just happened to follow a major contribution by a beneficiary of the vote. The relationship between lawmaker and beneficiary would be explained, the timetable for the contribution and vote would be laid out and then there would be the obligatory quote by the lawmaker: "There was no connection whatsoever between the contribution and the vote. I act only in the best interest of my constituents." And despite the absolute absurdity of such a statement, that is often where the story would be left.

While they had to be hit repeatedly over the head, voters apparently started reading between the lines and began to understand the cash-and-carry nature of politics today. Most of the major stories they read in recent months focused on Washington; folks like Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley and William Jefferson dominated the headlines. But if they were paying any attention whatsoever, they could also see that the overall culture of corruption is just as bad here in the Lone Star State. And to make matters worse, what officials can do that's legal in Texas is often far more alarming than what is illegal. Our system is broken and crying out for reform.

During the course of my recent gubernatorial campaign, I introduced multiple ethics reform proposals that I think should be considered in this session of the Texas Legislature. The three that I believe are most pressing and could have the biggest immediate impact are reforms focused on limiting campaign contributions, closing the revolving door that leads immediately from public service to lobbying and strengthening the enforcement capabilities of the Texas Ethics Commission. Other reforms are needed as well but the Legislature must start somewhere and these reforms are the most necessary.

Nothing contributes to Texas's "pay-to-play" culture more than our absurd rules regarding campaign finance. Texas is one of only five states that place no limits on how much individuals or political action committees may contribute to candidates running for state offices. Therefore, you have individuals contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in some cases, millions of dollars, usually in statewide campaigns.

The argument against changing the system is always that it's extremely expensive to run for office in a state the size of Texas. That's true and the cost of advertising drives the need to raise large sums. However, I have seen limits work effectively at both the federal and municipal levels; candidates have still been able to build sizeable war chests while greatly limiting any one individual's ability to garner an unfair level of influence.

While by no means the only good example, the city of Houston does have a very effective and realistic approach when it comes to campaign finance and it's a system that would translate well if implemented on a statewide basis. Individuals are allowed to contribute a maximum of $5,000 per election (there are no primaries in city elections but run-offs count as separate elections) and political action committees are allowed to contribute a maximum of $10,000 per election. With those restrictions in place, effective fundraising operations can still bring in plenty of money and those who wish to participate financially in campaigns are given ample opportunity to do so.

The federal system is far more restrictive, limiting individual contributions to just over $2,000. My problem with this approach is that while it looks good on paper, it's not realistic. What ends up happening is that loopholes are seized upon and a lot of supposedly "independent" committees are formed that don't face the same restrictions. If the goal is transparency, let's be realistic and allow candidates to raise enough to compete effectively while not forcing them to look for ways to game the system. The $5,000 and $10,000 limits do just that and if coupled with an aggregate limit of $100,000, whereby no individual may contribute more than that amount in any one cycle, we could effectively curb the wholesale efforts to buy influence at our state capitol.

While campaign finance reform should be the highest priority, lobbying reform is also necessary. How many stories do people have to read about a lawmaker announcing his resignation one day and hanging out his lobbying shingle the next before they insist on closing the revolving door? I don't begrudge anyone an opportunity to make a living and there are many former lawmakers who have become very talented lobbyists. But as long as the revolving door continues to spin uncontrollably, questions will continue to be raised as to whether resigning lawmakers are using those final days to serve their constituents or, rather, to simply secure a profitable exit.

The federal government requires a waiting period for both former lawmakers and staff members; lobbying is barred for 12 months after leaving government service. Similar down time is needed on the state level. Appearances matter and right now it appears that many go into public service simply to find a way to feather their nest upon leaving. Former lawmakers should not be permanently barred from using their experience to advocate for others after leaving office - that would be ridiculous. But the key word is "after" and twelve months is not too long to ask a former official to wait.

What can't wait is Ethics Commission reform. It's the great toothless tiger, an enforcement agency with no enforcement powers. If lawmakers are serious about ethics reform, then they will look for ways to make sure that the Ethics Commission has the tools and resources it needs to enforce the rules. Right now, it won't even issue a subpoena; much less conduct any type of serious investigation. If this doesn't change, it would make no sense to have campaign finance reform or any other reforms because they would simply go unenforced.

You would be correct to ask how we can honestly expect any of these reforms to occur. After all, we are talking about making life more difficult for the very individuals who would have to vote for the reforms. But the answer is actually quite simple: the public. The election was a wake-up call. Now, if lawmakers continue to hear from their constituents, ethics reform will be very hard for them to continue to ignore. Let's keep the pressure on.

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