Naked City

Charity Begins at Home

Charity returned to the comptroller's office last week, and the State Policy Committee (SPC) quietly came to its senses. In a May 4 meeting which required little time and less discussion, the committee overturned its own earlier rejections of a host of progressive organizations applying for participation in the annual State Employee Charitable Campaign (the SECC enables state employees to contribute to charitable groups by payroll deduction). As the Chronicle reported ("Capitol Chronicle," April 13), the committee -- in decisions led by the three appointees of Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander -- had rejected or deferred numerous organizations either on suspicion that they might use some of the employee donations for prohibited "lobbying and litigation," or on the perception that they did not provide sufficiently direct or indirect "health and human services" as defined by law.

Most of the rejected organizations work on behalf of environmental causes, civil rights, or abortion rights, and most had participated in the campaign without controversy in the past. Among the dozens of organizations rejected or deferred were Environmental Defense, Public Citizen, Save Barton Creek Association, the SEED Coalition, the Sierra Club Foundation, the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Texans for Gun Safety, Texas Abortion and Reproduction Rights Education Fund, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Texas Family Planning Association, and Texas Rural Legal Aid. "They're definitely targeting the progressive side of the spectrum," commented Kae McLaughlin of the Texas Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League, which uses its SECC funding to provide abortion information and access to low-income women.

The organizations and their supporters complained loudly and publicly after the original decisions, and there was talk of legal action. On April 11, Rylander issued a statement describing the rejections as "glitches in the application process" and declared her desire that "organizations that have historically been approved for the campaign continue to receive these charitable donations. … I believe state employees should be able to contribute to the charity of their choice."

At Friday's meeting, Rylander's three appointees (John Barr, Lisa Minton, and Richard Munisteri) had obviously gotten the message. Motions to reconsider and approve the rejected organizations' appeals passed swiftly, unanimously, and virtually without discussion, with Barr even attempting -- in the interests of "the need to be fair and equal" -- to reinstate one rejected organization (the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund) that had not appealed (his motion eventually failed for lack of a second).

After the meeting, new SPC chairman Steve Robinson of the Texas Youth Commission (newly appointed to the committee along with two others by Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff) said that he was aware of the controversial rejections but said they were a consequence of members "doing what they thought was right. I'm glad it's turned out in a positive way." Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project had arrived late to the meeting, expecting to use the public comment period to criticize the rejections -- only to discover that the rejection of the TCRP's Oficina Legal del Pueblo (which provides legal services to low-income people) had been reversed before he arrived. "It goes to show what a few hundred e-mails will do," Harrington told the Chronicle. "We had many people supporting us, including Republicans, who thought this was wrong, and that people should have a choice where they donate their own money."

The comptroller's appointees declined to comment on their decisions after the meeting, directing all inquiries to agency communications officer Mark Sanders. Asked if the comptroller had directed her appointees to reverse their decisions, Sanders reiterated Rylander's earlier public statement, adding, "I'm sure she's delighted that the organizations will be able to participate in the campaign."

Max Woodfin of the charitable federation Earth Share of Texas said he was glad the controversy was over and the reversals had occurred with "no glitches." Dianne Fanning, executive director of Another Way Texas Shares, congratulated the committee on its decisions and told the Chronicle, "Today was a big victory for choice for state employees, and a strong statement that freedom of speech is alive and well in the state of Texas."

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