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.

"Debra should be one of our champions on electronic filing," Smith says. "But I guess out of misinformation, or out of concern that the data will be misused, she has decided to drag her feet."

He says the same about Wolens, the Oak Cliff Democrat who co-chaired last year's campaign finance reform panel with Danburg. Wolens opposes electronic filing bills and says Texans could care less if contribution reports are available to them instantaneously on the Internet. The only people who give a rip, he says, are newspaper reporters and Smitty.

Danburg, a 47-year-old lawyer, says she thinks Smith wants the bill passed so he and his watchdog comrades -- her former comrades -- can expedite their agenda "to make it look like we are all bought and paid for by outside interests." She says the "Mortgaged House" report didn't faze her, because "the people in my district are smart enough to see through that bullshit."

Supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Texans ought to see through hers.

Danburg maintains she is not concerned that she and her colleagues could be sullied through easily accessible contribution reports. She says she bases her opposition solely on the principle that the state should not dictate to candidates how to spend their campaign money. Danburg believes it would be unfair to require candidates, especially those who run campaigns on shoestring budgets, to purchase computers and maintain computer programs.

What she doesn't mention is that the bill exempts those who run low-budget campaigns or who sign affidavits saying they're not equipped with a computer.

Those exceptions do little to mollify Danburg, who finds the affidavit insulting. She says it's like asking candidates to declare, "We're too incompetent to represent you. We're idiots."

Supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Danburg, Wolens and other legislative opponents are playing the public for idiots.

"Danburg's stated reasons for opposing electronic filing don't pass the laugh test," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "Her opposition more likely stems from a desire to protect her own self-interest or that of her colleagues who don't want voters to track where their money comes from."

Danburg represents some of Houston's more liberal and eclectic neighborhoods, including Montrose, The Heights and Memorial Park. Her seven-page vita advertises that she belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, and that she lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment. She lists two pages of awards she has received in areas such as animal rights, environmental protection, gay rights and human rights.

Yet her campaign treasury has been fattened by PACs and individuals who would make her constituents see red.

Danburg faced a Republican challenger in 1998, although that party didn't target her for defeat. As a result, her race was a slam dunk. Danburg nevertheless raked in about $208,000 in contributions in 1997 and 1998, according to an analysis of her reports by Texans for Public Justice.

About $100,000, or 47 percent of her total, came from PACs or client businesses such as law firms. And that $100,000 doesn't reflect contributions from individuals with ties to the businesses, trade associations and law firms that routinely lobby the Legislature.

"Danburg's fund-raising practices are like those of many legislators: A large chunk of her money comes from Austin," McDonald says. "Businesses and PACs chip in more than real folks, and small donors account for very little of the money."

Danburg's donors include the PAC for Service Corporation International, the Houston-based funeral services giant involved in a smarmy fight with the state's Funeral Services Commission over allegedly illegal embalming practices.

Some of her individual contributors appear to run counter to Danburg's stated philosophy of protecting the environment. Bill Messer, a lobbyist whose major clients include the American Plastics Council, the Texas Chemical Council and the Association of Chemical Industry of Texas, gave her $1,000. She received $1,000 from Charles Hurwitz of Houston, the CEO of Maxxam, a subsidiary of which owns the last privately held redwood forest in northern California, where it has conducted controversial logging practices.

In order to analyze Danburg's most recent contributions, Texans for Public Justice had to get her reports from the ethics commission, which is on the tenth floor of a building connected by an underground tunnel to the Capitol. Visitors can review campaign-finance reports during regular office hours. The agency charges a reasonable ten cents a page for copies.

For people not in the Austin area, however, obtaining reports is often costly and inconvenient. They have three options: trekking to Austin to review documents in person; having the commission fax reports at $2 a page (Danburg's 1998 reports, which also list her campaign expenditures, would cost $384 by fax); or having the commission mail copies at ten cents a page plus postage.

Copying is not always a thrifty proposition. Governor George W. Bush tried to be cute by filing a 12,797-page contribution and expenditure report in January 1998. He put only two contributions on each page in an effort to deter people from copying it.

Moreover, neither faxing nor mailing assures quick receipt. A lag of several weeks can be expected during times when the agency receives the most requests for reports. Crunch time occurs around the due dates for all reports and the days leading upto an election.

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