Contributing Factors

Debra Danburg swears she'll defend your right to open government. But when it comes to Internet campaign finance reports, ignorance is bliss.

In 1997 a trio of consumer groups with an agenda to embarrass legislators set out to prove what everyone around the Capitol had long suspected: Business interests that lobby state legislators are also the chief contributors to their campaigns.

The groups deployed teams of college students to sift through stack upon stack of paper reports detailing tens of thousands of campaign donations made to the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives during the previous two years. Armed with hard numbers to back them up, the groups reached a stinging conclusion: The Legislature was indebted to those who routinely ask for special favors.

Of the $14.6 million in contributions, $9 million came from political action committees and businesses, such as the hired-gun law firms that lobby the Legislature on behalf of big corporate clients ranging from chemical companies to HMOs. To make matters bleaker, the $9 million did not even include donations from individual executives or the lobbyists themselves.

The consumer groups issued a report with a snippy, snappy, yet suitable, title: "Mortgaged House."

If legislators were chagrined, they hid their shame well. However, they could not mask their outrage in the days after the report was released in January 1998. At a special House committee hearing on campaign finance reform, legislators picked apart the report line by line, questioning its methodology, its assumptions and, mostly, its conclusion. They were especially piqued at how personal it got. The report detailed what percentage of each House member's total came from PACs and businesses, as well as the percentage from outside the legislator's district.

They found that bit of information particularly misleading. Representative Steve Wolens of Dallas pointed out that if he had contributed to his own campaign, the check would have had an address from his downtown Dallas law office, and therefore the contribution would have been counted as originating from outside his district. Other legislators on the panel knew Wolens had a good point. They gleefully piled on as an official of one of the consumer groups sat helpless before them in the witness chair.

By obsessing on the parts of "Mortgaged House" in which the authors were guilty of overreaching, lawmakers effectively disregarded the report's sound hypothesis: The Texas Legislature has strayed from its purpose of representing average citizens.

It seems the only message that got through to many House members is that having their campaign contributions analyzed too closely poses a huge menace.

Now, some of those same folks who produced the report want legislators to make it easy for any Texan to do a similar analysis of campaign contributions. Legislators will debate bills this session that would require all state officeholders and candidates, legislators and PACs to submit computer-ready contribution reports by diskette, modem or other means of electronic transfer. They are now required to file only paper reports with the Texas Ethics Commission, which warehouses them in its Austin offices. That makes filings difficult and often expensive to obtain. It also makes it nearly impossible to analyze contribution patterns and trends.

If a mandatory electronic filing bill passes, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection could access all contribution reports at the click of a mouse -- and almost as soon as the commission receives them. Anyone, of course, includes government watchdog groups and the media, which would get a jump-start to run the type of computer-aided analyses that resulted in the "Mort-gaged House" report.

The menace would multiply. It's no wonder some legislators are guilty of overreaching in dreaming up excuses why the bill should die.

The legislator most determined to kill the bill is Representative Debra Danburg, a Houston Democrat with 19 years in office. Danburg has made a career of marketing herself as someone who goes to Austin to fight for the causes of common folks against great odds, as a legislator protecting the abused and the neglected against the will of the influential elite, and as one who favors removing government's shrouds so the public can know what's really going on at their Capitol.

In 1996 she won an award for being a real trooper in backing the advocates of campaign finance reform. But today, as chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, Danburg vows to use her influence to submarine the mandatory electronic filing bill that 90advocates view as the cornerstone of any meaningful reform.

Danburg's transformation from ally to turncoat is all the more puzzling because she also is sponsoring bills to require candidates to disclose more information on their campaign-finance reports, such as the occupation and employer of particularly large donors. At least one consumer advocate is scratching his abundantly bald head.

"She is one of the people we generally rely on the most to do the right things in the House," says Tom Smith. He is Texas director of Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader and one of the groups behind "Mortgaged House." (The other organizations are Texans for Public Justice and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.) Smith is so familiar to legislators that even those who consider him a burr under their backsides address him by his nickname, "Smitty."

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