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Perry vetoes ‘dark money’ bill; Senate passes budget

Posted Saturday, May. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Gov. Rick Perry drew out his veto pen Saturday as the Legislature nears the final hours of its session, striking down legislation that would have required politically active nonprofits to disclose their contributors.

The prospect of a special session continued to loom large as lawmakers steamed toward Monday’s adjournment.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, was designed to shed light on “dark money” donations that have increasingly flowed into national and state campaigns from groups that don’t have to reveal their financial backers.

In a second veto, Perry also rejected a bill that would have required state agencies to give preference to goods made in Texas in their purchasing policies. He said that a similar requirement is already on the books and that House Bill 535 would have been redundant.

The announcements from Perry’s second-floor office in the Capitol came as lawmakers prepared to address a final onslaught of big-ticket issues before wrapping up their 140-day session Monday.

The Senate, on a 27-4 vote, approved and sent to the House a $197 billion budget that includes a 3.7 percent increase in spending and rolls back much of the reduction in public school funding made by lawmakers two years ago.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, cast on of the four dissenting votes, saying the spending plan “fell short” of addressing water and infrastructure needs and failed to provide significant tax relief.

But Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who voted against an early Senate budget in March, sided with the majority on the final vote, praising budget writers’ efforts to pour more money into public schools.

House members called it a day at midafternoon while many of the big issues were still being finalized in conference committees.

That ensured a daunting workload in the final hours of the session as lawmakers take final votes on a cluster of budget-related bills, a restructuring of public school testing and graduation requirements, an expansion of charter schools, more than $1 billion in tax relief and funding to help reverse a water shortage over the next half-century.

Many lawmakers also began fatalistically looking toward an extended stay in Austin amid talk of a special session, possibly immediately after Monday’s adjournment. Attorney General Greg Abbott has asked for a special session to get legislative approval for interim political maps to strengthen his hand in a protracted legal dispute over redistricting.

The increasing prospect of an overtime session on redistricting has led to speculation that it could also be used to deal with other matters. In a letter, 60 of the 150 House members have asked Perry to allow a special session to include additional abortion restrictions, pointing out that “not a single pro-life bill” reached the House floor this session.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst also asked Perry for a special session to deal with anti-abortion issues and other conservative priorities, including drug-testing welfare recipients and further restricting state spending.

Perry has repeatedly declined to say what his intentions are and may not announce a decision on a special session until lawmakers formally adjourn Monday.

Perry also faces a decision about his own political future. The state’s longest-serving governor has said he is waiting until after the session to declare whether he will seek re-election to a fourth four-year term in 2014 and possibly make a second bid for the presidency in 2016.

Perry has said he expects to announce his political decision in June.

‘A sad day’

The governor’s veto of Senate Bill 346 drew a sharp reaction from the bill’s supporters.

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas,” Seliger, who authored the bill, said in a statement. “Governor Perry’s veto of SB346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections.”

But Perry said the measure would have had a “chilling effect” on participation in the democratic process.

“While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws,” Perry said in his veto message, “no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means.”

The concept of SB346 was also included in legislation to extend the Texas Ethics Commission, but Geren said that provision was stripped from the bill in a conference committee, meaning the issue is dead for the 2013 session.

“I haven’t talked to the governor. I don’t know the reason that he vetoed it,” Geren said.

The bill applied primarily to nonprofits that are classified as social welfare organizations under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. They don’t qualify as political action committees and aren’t required to report donors. The legislation would have compelled 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 both state and national politics as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which enabled them to make political contributions without reporting their donors, as PACs must do.

“At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent, it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation,” Perry said in announcing his veto.

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

Sullivan, who heads Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans, is a Perry supporter and a critic of House Speaker Joe Straus, whom he has accused of leading the House away from conservative principles. He has also helped Tea Party candidates oust Republican incumbents in the past two elections.

Geren said 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 Texans for Public Justice. The Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for moderate- and low-income Texans, spent about $240,000 over the same period.

In other action Saturday, senators sent Perry legislation to provide more oversight of economic incentive programs managed by the comptroller. But Davis was unhappy with House changes that stripped her provision to require audits of the programs.

Davis and fellow Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin pushed for the toughened oversight amid criticism that the Major Events Trust Fund and Events Trust Fund have been used on questionable items, such as video scoreboards at sports stadiums.

Arlington and other municipalities strongly support the funds to help draw big-ticket events that provide a windfall for host communities.

More than $31 million from the Major Events Trust Fund helped Arlington host the 2011 Super Bowl.

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

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