The most powerful officeholder in the State of Texas has tapped a slew of millionaires, billionaires, heavyweight GOP donors and corporate figureheads -- over half of whom have donated directly to his campaign -- to meet in secret and advise him on what should be done about some of our state's most pressing issues.
That might sound like hyperbole. It's not. It's literally the plan that incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced yesterday to a group of reporters in Austin. Even the Associated Press abandoned its usually benign tone to lead its story on Patrick's unprecedented move this way:
"Billionaire political donors and other special interest heavyweights who already spend lavishly on lobbying will begin formally advising Texas lawmakers on crafting bills under a partnership announced Thursday by incoming Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick."
Patrick on Thursday released the names of 56 people who will make up "advisory panels" to tackle issues like economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy and oil and gas, tax policy, transportation, and water. These boards will meet privately and will not be subject to state open meetings laws. Patrick says he's tasked these panels with generating policy proposals that he'll consider as he shepherds bills through the 84th Legislature.
Included in the list of names Patrick released yesterday are people like Houston's Ned Holmes, a real estate developer and major GOP fundraiser. Landry's CEO Tilman Feritta, who has donated nearly a quarter million dollars to Patrick's campaigns since 2005, will sit on the lieutenant governor's economic forecasting panel. Midland oilman Tim Dunn, who donated $50,000 to Patrick last year and has given millions to the hard-right policy group Empower Texans, will help Patrick brainstorm energy policies and oil and gas regulations.
Billionaire and die-hard natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens will run Patrick's oil and gas panel; not surprisingly, Patrick has already announced that, as part of his legislative agenda for the new session, he wants to bolster the market for natural gas, in part by running a larger percentage of state vehicles on compressed natural gas. If you're looking for an example of how the advisory boards' makeup might tilt the scales in favor of corporate interest instead of public good, look no further than Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick's tax policy advisory panel. As the Texas Observer points out, Ryan is a consultant who specializes in finding tax breaks for major corporations like Raytheon and ExxonMobil, a proponent of what lefties and tea-partiers alike decry as corporate welfare.
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Watchdog group Texans for Public Justice has already crunched the data from campaign contributions, and found that 43 of the 56 names tapped by Patrick have helped fund his campaigns in the past, the largest donor being Landry's Fertitta.
It's no secret that those who stand to make money from policy decisions eagerly hope to influence lawmakers. Why else would there be over 1,600 registered lobbyists every time the Lege meets? What makes Patrick's move different, and unprecedented, is that he's rounded a bunch of these people up and made them an official component of his governing team.
"We've been trying to make the case for 15 years that corporate elites have more power and clout than they should have in this state," TPJ founder Craig Mcdonald told us today. Mcdonald says Patrick basically just helped him prove that point, making the state's influence-peddling structure more public than ever.
"Formalizing these panels, making it official, it basically brings to the forefront what's been wrong with Texas for a long time," Mcdonald says.