The Business of Educations at T.A.B.

The Texas Association of Business carried out an "educational" campaign for this election.

This election season, the Texas Association of Business flooded mailboxes statewide with slick campaign brochures attacking or exalting certain candidates in state legislative races. You might think such apparent campaign materials would be subject to state campaign ethics laws. Yet T.A.B. President Bill Hammond insists the mailers were "educational," and therefore not subject to the same disclosure laws required of other political materials, such as the ones produced under the name of the business group's official political action committee, BACPAC (Business and Commerce PAC).

But it doesn't take a political junkie or a professor of government to know the difference between an educational effort and a smear job. T.A.B.'s mailers may have contributed to the defeat of at least five incumbent Democrats targeted by the business group, including freshman Ann Kitchen of Austin, House dean and Speaker Pro Tem Tom Uher of Bay City, Election Committee Chair Debra Danburg of Houston, and Bob Glaze of Gilmer.

In Kitchen's re-election bid against former GOP Travis Co. Commissioner Todd Baxter, Dist. 48 voters received three separate T.A.B. mail pieces -- one trumpeting Baxter's pro-business stance, another depicting Kitchen as anti-business, and a third blistering the incumbent with the claim that she opposes teaching kids how to read. T.A.B. also addressed voters in Travis County's Dist. 50, where they supported GOP victor Jack Stick over Dem James Sylvester. In Dist. 45, where long-shot Democrat Patrick Rose upset incumbent Rick Green, T.A.B. distributed at least one mailer attacking Rose's support from "trial lawyers."

Political players across the state are buzzing over the mailers, with some claiming T.A.B. may have violated election laws by failing to include a mandatory political disclaimer stating who paid for the materials. Additionally, the organization didn't file financial statements with the state Ethics Commission, which would have listed the amount and source of funding for the four million mailers. There is also a question as to whether the mailers constitute prohibited direct corporate contributions to political campaigns.

Hammond is indignant that anyone would suggest the business group would try to skirt the law. "We are not advocating the election or defeat of any candidate," Hammond said of the campaign material. "We are simply educating the voter. That's our purpose, and the law and court decisions allow for that under the First Amendment."

According to Natalia Ashley, an assistant general counsel with the state Ethics Commission, disclosure statements are required if campaign ads and other political materials contain language in support or opposition of a candidate, or if a contract or agreement is entered into -- with an advertising company or printer, for example. Any formal complaint about a political piece would have to come from a voter, Ashley said. Violation of the disclaimer requirement is a Class A misdemeanor carrying a $5,000 penalty. In T.A.B.'s case, that's small potatoes compared to what the group spent -- an estimated $1 million-plus -- to produce and mail the materials.

Buck Wood, one of the state's most experienced election lawyers and the former elections director for the secretary of state, reviewed one of the T.A.B. mailers at our request. "I would not advise any corporate client -- either a nonprofit association or anyone else -- to spend corporate money on those types of mailers," he said. "And I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would do it."

Hammond responded, "It's perfectly legal to spend corporate dollars to educate voters," adding that the funding came from the association's membership. "It's very clear who paid for the mailers -- our logo is right on the front."

Democratic political strategist David Butts has a theory about why the T.A.B. mailers didn't carry a disclaimer. "Maybe it's because of the source of the funding -- big polluters, the insurance industry, or HMOs -- groups they know are unpopular. It could very well just be a laundering operation T.A.B. is running for these groups who are out to destroy the trial lawyers. It's only a fiction in [Hammond's] mind if he thinks anyone would believe that these were 'educational' pieces."

One of the most slanted mail pieces attacked incumbent representatives who favored legislation that would have allowed children and their teachers more time to prepare for a new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test scheduled to be administered this year to third graders. The bill, which won overwhelming bipartisan support in the House last session but died in the Senate, favored a year's phase-in of a new reading test for third graders, part of former Gov. George W. Bush's plan to end "social promotion." T.A.B. opposed the legislation and attacked incumbents who voted for the bill. The cover of that particular mailer depicts a blackboard with several handwritten lines repeating, "You don't need to read to succeed," followed by "That's what [incumbent's name] believes." Ironically, last week the state education commissioner, Felipe Alanis, made recommendations similar to what the legislation would have allowed, in light of new projections that nearly one in every four third-graders is expected to fail the test.

Significantly, T.A.B. endorsed more than 30 incumbents who voted for the bill, and they were spared the group's assaults on the TAKS front. "It wasn't a litmus test where if you voted [against the group's wishes] one time," Hammond said, "we wouldn't endorse you." He said in determining whether an incumbent was "pro-business," the group based its endorsements on how the representatives fared on T.A.B.'s overall voting scorecard. Kitchen, he said, failed the grade with a 27. (For the record, longtime Houston Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who faced no formidable opposition in her re-election campaign, also scored a 27, but won T.A.B.'s endorsement anyway.)

Hammond's insistence that his group's efforts were strictly informative seems contradicted by his declaration that T.A.B. was successful in 19 of the 24 races targeted -- or rather, "educated." "What we did," he said, "was work to defeat those who didn't support us on business issues."

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