Political disclosure bill nears final passage in Legislature

Posted Monday, May. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Senate-passed legislation requiring politically active non-profit organizations to reveal their contributors won preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday, moving it within striking distance of a trip to Gov Rick Perry’s desk.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, fended off amendments that would keep it from going back to the Senate, which passed the bill in April but later reconsidered.

Final passage of an unamended bill today would send it to Perry, who has not announced a position on the measure.

“Now that it’s in its final form,” said Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed, “he’ll review it when it gets to his desk.”

The lopsided 99-46 preliminary vote strongly indicated that the bill will be spared from a return trip to the Senate, where it could wind up on the legislative trash heap.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 23-6 but senators reversed themselves the next day after an intense lobbying campaign by opponents. By that time the bill was already in the hands of the House.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, who heads politically influential conservative organizations that would likely fall under the bill’s requirements, attacked the measure though social media Monday, comparing the Senate-passed bill to the reported targeting of Tea Party groups by the IRS.

That criticism produced a sharp response from Geren, who accused Sullivan of lying. Geren says the bill is needed to curb what has been described as “dark money” in political campaigns.

“This is about transparency and political contributions and we’re not sending the IRS after anybody,” said Geren, a top member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team. said. “If he chooses to blatantly lie to the members and those other people, that’s fine.”

Sullivan, who heads Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans, is one of Straus’ leading critics and has helped Tea Party candidates oust Republican incumbents in the past two elections. He did not respond to requests for an interview Monday.

The bill applies primarily to nonprofits that are classified as social welfare organizations under 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, which don’t qualify as a political action committee and aren’t required to report financial donors. The legislation would require those organizations with political expenditures of more than $25,000 to report contributions of $1,000 or more.

The groups have become a growing force in politics at both the state and national level as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has enabled them to make political contributions without reporting their contributors, as PACs are required to do.

“SB 346 is the most important transparency bill of the session,” said Craig McDonald, who heads Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group in Austin. “The governor will decide if Texas campaigns will be transparent or waged in secret.”

Geren said that just two groups from differing sides of the political spectrum contributed nearly $600,000 to Texas candidates last year.

Texans for Fiscal Responsibility spent $350,000, mostly in the Republican primaries, according to the Austin-based Texams for Public Justice. The Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for moderate- and low-income Texans, spent about $240,000 over the same period.

“If this loophole isn’t closed now it’s just going to grow, larger and larger,” said Geren.

Split delegation

The Tarrant County delegation split on the bill, with five members supporting the measure and six opposing it.

In addition to Geren, Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, supported the bill as did Democrats Lon Burnam and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

Opposing the bill were Republicans Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Bill Zedler of Arlington and Stephanie Klick, Craig Goldman and Matt Krause of Fort Worth, all of whom were supported by Sullivan and tea party groups in the 2012 election.

All but Zedler are in their first term.

“I think it’s unconstitutional,” said Stickland. “I think it’s going to get struck down by the Supreme Court when somebody sues over it.”

The Senate-passed bill excludes labor unions, which Capriglione said was a deal-breaker for some members. The House defeated two amendments that would have included labor unions.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau Chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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