Senators Live Beyond Their Means

A study of 'campaign expenditures' finds that our part-time state senators live very well

State senators drive pricey cars, live in expensive condos, eat in the finest restaurants, jet across the country, and lavish extravagant gifts on constituents – all on a measly salary of $7,200 a year. No wonder they aren't clamoring for a pay raise.

In fact, most of the 31 members of the Texas Senate draw on the kindness of big campaign donors to help support their lifestyles, according to a recent study by watchdog organization Campaigns for People. The group's biggest discovery – that only 40% of the senators' campaign funds go toward actual campaign activities – surprised even the most cynical political observers. The remaining 60%, the report found, paid for lifestyle, office, or miscellaneous expenses. The study, aptly named "Money in All the Wrong Places," is based on an examination of senators' campaign-finance reports filed electronically with the Texas Ethics Commission. The data covered a three-year time period between Jan. 1, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2003.

The findings illustrate how the system is hobbled by ineffective campaign-finance and ethics laws, said Fred Lewis, executive director of Campaigns for People and a proponent of massive reforms. Lewis attributes the lawmakers' freewheeling spending habits to their low salaries – low even for part-time "citizen legislators." Texas is one of 40 states with a part-time lawmaker system, but one of the lowest-paying of all the states. Given the recent legislative meltdowns over redistricting and lack of action on school finance, one could easily conclude that you get what you pay for in Texas. Lewis likened the situation to a company that grossly underpays its employees and then wonders why the firm is hanging by its fingernails.

To survive as a legislator in this state, Lewis surmised, "You have to be either independently wealthy or live off your campaign contributions. Or both." Siphoning funds from campaign war chests can, of course, create the perception of dependence on powerful political action committees and individual donors, not to mention conflicts of interests and divided loyalties. Former state Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, who resigned in January after President Bush appointed him U.S. ambassador to Sweden, drew campaign funds from right-wingers and became an advocate for school vouchers and tort reform. Though he is a wealthy businessman and rancher, Bivins dipped into his war chest nonetheless to pay for his $3,000-a-month condominium in Austin.

"The system has become so dysfunctional (that) it's really going to be hard to change," Lewis said. And no one is likely to start bucking the system anytime soon. Texas voters last approved a pay raise for lawmakers in 1975, but defeated another proposed salary increase in 1991. Legislators then handed salary matters to the Ethics Commission, giving the agency the authority not only to recommend a pay increase but to take the question directly to voters. But salary has essentially become a nonissue over the last decade or so.

Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos believes that if Texas voters were aware of two things – the actual work that goes into being a legislator and the rich spending habits of their various representatives – they might realize that higher salaries would create a larger pool of candidates. "It's all legal," Barrientos said of the campaign funds that feed certain senatorial lifestyles. "But even if I had the funds, I wouldn't feel right about doing that." Barrientos' own campaign-expenditure report reflects his highly competitive re-election campaign in 2002 against well-funded Republican Ben Bentzin, a former Dell executive; it was likely the most competitive race for the Texas Senate.

On the face of it, who needs a pay raise when you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank? In a report released earlier this year, Texans for Public Justice, another watchdog group, found that the amount of money in the senators' war chests averaged about $382,582 apiece. The group made that determination based on a rare reform measure approved in 2003, which required lawmakers to report their "cash on hand." TPJ examined campaign-finance reports filed on Jan. 15 – the first time state lawmakers were required to report these cash reserves – and found an awe-inspiring stockpile of $21 million among the six top statewide elective officials and 179 incumbent legislators. Two Houston senators – John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, both Democrats – surpassed the $1 million mark with reported totals of $2.1 million and $1.1 million respectively.

In Austin and elsewhere, the 31 senators regularly enjoy eating at Jeffrey's, Eddie V's, Sullivan's, and other well-heeled restaurants, where, the Campaigns for People report shows, they generously pick up enormous tabs – explained on their campaign-finance reports as meetings with staff, constituents, or fellow legislators. In addition, they draw on their campaign funds to decorate their offices, pay their car insurance bills, make financial contributions to other candidates, and supplement their Capitol staffers' modest state salaries, topped off at the end of the year with a Christmas bonus.

Lawmakers are given a lot of subjective leeway in classifying their expenditures on their campaign reports, and in many cases they provide only vague descriptions of their costly travel and gift-giving bills. New car purchases or leases are often described as campaign vehicles, even though the majority of the senators face no serious opposition in their election campaigns. According to Texans for Public Justice, in the 2002 Senate elections – in which all 31 seats were up for grabs – only 13% of the incumbents met with any opposition, usually weak.

State law prohibits officeholders from spending their campaign funds on personal use. But that law is so broadly and vaguely defined that lawmakers are able to support their personal lifestyles with little oversight. There is, however, one specific commandment they adhere to: Thou shalt not use campaign funds to purchase real estate or homes. It took the disgrace of former Attorney General Dan Morales – now a guest of the federal prison system – to remind them of that.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

campaign finance, Campaigns for People, Texans for Public Justice, Fred Lewis, John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis, Teel Bivins, Texas Ethics Commission, Eddie V's, Sullivan's, Jeffrey's, George Bush, Dan Morales

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