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."
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
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."
"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.
Basically the delay is longest when the information is at its freshest and most relevant. And the cost is highest when the report is at its thickest and most revealing.
Reports filed electronically, on the other hand, could be posted on the Internet moments after they're received and could be available at zero cost to the person wanting to view them.
Danburg says she's worried about the poor. Not the poor who'd have to shell out several hundred bucks to find out who's financing political campaigns, but the poor who seek to become legislators. Mandatory electronic filing sets up a barrier, she says, for "homegrown, grassroots and salt-of-the-earth" people to run for public office.
There are other barriers against the poor running for the Legislature. The biggest is that the job pays a mere $7,200 a year and requires takers to spend at least five months every two years in Austin, away from their "real" jobs. Poor people can't afford to run because, well, they might win. Danburg's concern, virtuous as it sounds, is for people who hardly exist.
Danburg is willing to vote for a mandatory electronic filing bill as long as it does not apply to her and other legislators. Statewide candidates, she figures, should have no problem complying with electronic filing requirements since their big-budget campaigns already are high-tech.
"But it's almost impossible for the poor guy to comply," she continues. "I'm absolutely not trying to hide information. But I'm not going to put systems in place that benefit the rich elite."
Danburg's lofty argument, however, is based on a fictitious premise. Poor candidates, assuming there are any, likely would not have to comply with the requirements. An electronic filing bill already proposed by Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth exempts candidates who expect to raise or spend less than $5,000 in their races. Some bill backers are willing to raise that amount to get something passed.
Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause Texas, heaves a heavy sigh before reeling off the list of exceptions, a rhetorical exercise she has practiced several times. She runs through them fleetly and in a tone that exaggerates her exasperation.
"I'm basically just really sick of hearing all the excuses," says Woodford, who, as an advocate for government ethics, often resorts to histrionics to make her point.
Woodford has heard plenty of excuses from Danburg, whom Common Cause honored in 1996 with its Star of Texas Public Service Award. The year before, Danburg co-sponsored a law with stringent campaign finance rules for Texas judges and judicial candidates. According to the banquet invitation, Danburg was honored "for being a true champion of campaign finance and election reform." Woodford chortles now after reading those words.
Danburg points to an array of campaign finance reform bills she is sponsoring this session as proof she remains a champion of the cause. She says she has no problem with the ethics commission's electronically scanning the paper reports and posting those on its Web site. That would make the reports easier to obtain, but it still would be difficult to analyze trends and patterns.
Anyone wanting to run sophisticated computer-aided research of the data would face the time-consuming task of reentering every contribution into a database. "Scanning is a way of disguising the data, because it can't easily be sorted and searched," Smith of Public Citizen says.
Danburg also says the commission could manually enter the data from the paper reports, contribution by contribution. That would build a comprehensive database that would be easy to search, but the entry of information would be expensive and time-consuming. And reports would not be available immediately after they were filed.
"That's fine, Debra," says Woodford, pretending Danburg is within earshot. "You sponsor the bill to appropriate all the necessary funds that the ethics commission would need to punch in George W. Bush's five-bajillion-page report. We'll have to have a much larger facility and staff over there if they are going to make this information available in a timely way."
As if Woodford weren't irritated enough, another recipient of Common Cause's annual public service award also opposes mandatory electronic filing. The organization recognized Steve Wolens in 1997 "for his uncommonly dedicated sponsorship of open government legislation and his determination to shine the light on what elected and appointed officials are doing in your name."
Wolens has been one of the Legislature's strongest advocates for bringing government out into the open. Already this session he accepted praise for his bill to change the state's open meetings law. It would close a loophole that allows public bodies to hear briefings from their staffs in private. But when it comes to shining a brighter light on public officials' campaign business, Wolens withdraws.
Parroting the same rationale as Danburg, Wolens says he is concerned that mandatory electronic filing raises the price of the ticket for anyone wanting to run for the Legislature.
"It's not as if there's a great need to have it done electronically," says Wolens, 48, a House member since 1981. "We're still making disclosure. You just go to the ethics commission and get a copy."
A visit to the ethics commission to review Wolens's report shows he received about 300 contributions last year, adding about $160,000 to his campaign kitty. Not bad, considering he ran unopposed in 1998. Among his most generous contributors was a Southwestern Bell employee PAC, with separate donations of $2,500 on November 21 and $3,000 on April 3. Wolens is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, which handles bills related to telecommunications.
Wolens's wife is Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller, a former columnist for the Dallas Observer, a sister publication of the Houston Press. But Wolens suggests the media have selfish interests in trying to make a big deal about electronic filing.
"Government can't help every newspaper reporter write their story," Wolens says. "I have not had one constituent write me a letter about electronic filing."
However, some of his legislative colleagues are jumping on board for computerized campaign reports. One former opponent is Representative Jerry Madden, a Republican from Richardson. Now he is co-sponsoring an electronic filing bill with Representative Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine. It will be folded into an overall campaign finance reform bill, he says.
"If we're going to say disclosure is the most important thing, then let's disclose, and let's get that information into the hands of voters rapidly," says Madden, who sits on Danburg's elections committee. "The more information, the better, because then voters can make a more informed decision."
A Texas voter has to look to Florida to understand the benefits of having all campaign finance information immediately available on the Internet.
On the Florida Department of State's whiz-bang Web site (election.dos.state. fl.us/campfin/cfindb.htm), visitors can run a sophisticated search of contribution information by simply plugging in the name of any elected state official, candidate, political committee or contributor.
Type the name George Bush into a search field, hit enter, and in seconds the Web site responds that President George Bush and Governor George W. Bush each gave Jeb Bush $500 last year in his successful run for governor of Florida. It also will show the former president gave $1,000 to the Florida Republican Party and donated an autograph valued at $50 to Florida state Representative Mike Fasano.
Enter Fasano's name into the search field, and the screen rolls an easy-to-read list detailing every contribution the Republican legislator received in 1998. It reports the name and address of each contributor, how much was given, the form of the contribution (check, loan, cash or in-kind) and, in some cases, the donor's occupation.
Fourteen states, including California, New York and Louisiana, require some sort of mandatory electronic filing of campaign-finance reports, according to the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank that specializes in campaign finance issues. Florida's Web site is considered the model.
Sophisticated though it may be, it exists in spite of -- not because of -- legislators there. Former Florida secretary of state Sandra Mortham, an elected official who therefore was directly accountable to voters, made the executive decision to install the system for the 1996 election cycle. Ethel Baxter, elections director for Florida's state department, says the software was developed in-house, which kept costs to a minimum.
"I hate to admit that, but that's the way it is," Baxter says. What really distresses her is that many candidates use computers to prepare reports that are filed on paper, even though the state has easy-to-use, inexpensive Windows-based software.
To maintain a complete database of campaign contributions and expenditures, Florida hires state prisoners to enter the data manually from the reports filed on paper. By using inmate labor, the state can usually post all contributions on its Web site three or four days after receiving the reports, a remarkably quick turnaround, Baxter says.
"This system works only because we make it work," she says.
In Oklahoma, the Legislature also resisted bringing campaign finance into the computer age. Lawmakers effectively overturned a year-old ethics commission rule that required statewide candidates and large PACs to file reports electronically. Legislators complained about bugs in the state's software. Marilyn Hughes, commission executive director, says most of the problems were worked out before the Legislature voted to thwart the policy.
"We're going to try to solve all the problems they had with it, come out with a better version, and hit it again," she says.
Like Florida, the Federal Election Commission asks --but does not require -- federal officeholders and candidates to file contribution reports electronically. Of the 1,320 federal candidates in last November's election, only 44 complied, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization that tracks money in federal politics. Of the 44, only one was from Texas: first-term Congressman Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio.
The Texas Ethics Commission also asks politicians and political committees to voluntarily file their campaign-finance reports electronically on software the agency provides for free. About 12 to 17 percent comply at any given time, according to commission clerks. A handful of others, including Governor Bush and Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry, file reports electronically using different software.
The commission posts all electronic filings on its Web site (www.ethics.state. tx.us), making them available to be downloaded. For someone with only basic knowledge of computer software, however, actually reading the files may be difficult. The ethics commission software is DOS-based, not easily transferable to Windows-based programs. The Bush and Perry files must be unzipped before they can be read.
House Speaker Pete Laney is among 31 of the 181 legislators who submitted their most-recent reports electronically. Madden also is among them. Danburg and Wolens aren't.
Danburg uses the ethics commission's antiquated software as another excuse for her position against mandatory electronic filing. She says she once paid a computer consultant $15,000 to try to make her campaign software compatible with what the ethics commission provides -- a claim that befuddles commission staff.
"What you have are computer experts who are the only people who can do this," Danburg says. "How much do they charge an hour? A bunch."
When informed that the commission is aching to upgrade its software to a user-friendly Windows-based system, she asks, "Why haven't they already done it?"
Easy enough to answer: She and her legislative colleagues haven't appropriated the money to do it.
Lawmakers have been generous with the buck, however, in turning the Legislature itself into a high-tech institution. All 181 legislators have Dell or IBM laptop computers, paid for by the state, on the tops of their antique wood desks inside the Senate and House chambers. Legislators are also provided at least one desktop computer each, to use in their Capitol offices.
Although some legislators are quick to assert their computer ignorance when it comes to filing campaign-finance reports, many routinely visit Internet spots from their desks, including an award-winning Web site called Texas Legislature Online (www.capitol.state.tx.us). The site, financed by taxpayers, is a mother lode of information. One of its many features is a database containing the full text of every bill filed in the Legislature since 1995. It also offers live and archived broadcasts (some with video) of many floor sessions and committee hearings.
All of it gives the impression that the Legislature is very hard at work and working very hard.
In addition, each legislator has his own home page, some with links to self-serving news releases. Other home pages have audio greetings.
"I hope you'll find this information interesting and helpful," Wolens says on his.
Apparently, that sentiment applies only when the information makes legislators look good.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.