Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Lobbyists now seeing need for campaign contribution limits

This is a healthy discussion in our state. Campaign finance reform is a tough issue, but clearly in our interest as a state to address in order to minimize the undue influence of select individuals. -Angela

by Clay Robison
Web Posted: 12/10/2006 09:57 PM CST

San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — Bob Perry and James Leininger aren't the only poster children for campaign finance reform in Texas, but they and other mega-donors are inspiring more talk about the need for contribution limits.
And the talk isn't coming from just the public advocacy groups that have been preaching reform for years. A number of prominent Austin lobbyists, whose business clients also play the money game, are increasingly beginning to feel the same way.

"The whole money thing ... has gotten totally out of hand. I support any restrictions of any kind, and most of the lobby would too," said one lobbyist, who didn't want to be named.

Reform still has at least two major obstacles, however, in Gov. Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick. Two of the governor's biggest contributors are Bob Perry (to whom he isn't related) and Leininger.

Some reformers suggest that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a multimillionaire who can largely fund his own campaigns if necessary, may be receptive to contribution limits because they could partially disarm opponents in a future governor's race. But Dewhurst may not want to fight this uphill battle.

Business lobbyists could help renew an old debate, but many don't want to be publicly associated with campaign finance reform, at least not yet, because they and their clients have to work with lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

Jack Gullahorn, an Austin attorney and former lobbyist, said he has slowly come around to the need for contribution limits partly, but not totally, because of the super-rich donors who, of late, have been dumping tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into selected legislative races.

"I think that over the last few years, I've been hearing from more people that they're feeling disenfranchised," Gullahorn said.

In other words, a growing number of lobbyists and their corporate clients are worried about their own preservation in an arena in which money is considered essential to political influence.

Gullahorn said the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, an organization of lobbyists he heads, won't take the lead on campaign finance reform but will support efforts to impose contribution limits.

He said the group also would support the legalization of direct, but limited, corporate contributions to candidates, a practice now banned by state law. That proposal may spark even more controversy, but Gullahorn said such a law could be easier to administer than the system of political action committees, through which many corporate-related donations are now made.

Bob Perry, a Houston home builder, and Leininger, a San Antonio businessman, are among donors now outgunning most traditional givers, including the vast majority of business executives, doctors and plaintiffs lawyers.

Perry, who has headed the Texas donors' list for the past three elections, spent $16 million on state and federal races in 2005-06, according to a report by Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in Texas politics. He gave $6.7 million of the total to state candidates, mostly Republicans, and conservative Texas political committees.

Leininger gave about $5 million in pursuit of a law allowing tax dollars to be spent on vouchers for private school tuition. He helped unseat two Republican legislators who voted against him in 2005, but overall lost more races than he won.

A handful of other contributors, including plaintiffs lawyers John O'Quinn of Houston and Fred Baron of Dallas, gave about $1 million or more. O'Quinn was Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell's single biggest contributor.

And Texans for Lawsuit Reform, to which Bob Perry has generously contributed, gave more than $3 million in the recent election cycle, far outpacing most political action committees.

One bill already has been prefiled to limit an individual's total contributions in state races to $100,000 per election cycle, and there will be other proposals, including public funding of campaigns.

The above unnamed lobbyist believes donation limits will get more support from legislators after the large sums of money that Leininger, in particular, spent against House members who had voted the "wrong" way on vouchers.

"If they have a brain at all, they have to be smart enough to understand that the first time they step out of line, they're going to be the target next time," he said.

Look for the latest news in Texas politics each Monday from Austin Bureau Chief Clay Robison.

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