Bill requiring ‘dark money’ groups to report donations is close to heading to Texas governor

Published: 13 May 2013 11:18 PM
Updated: 13 May 2013 11:34 PM

AUSTIN — A bill throwing back the curtain on “dark money” groups that spend hundreds of thousands on campaigns but don’t have to report their funding won preliminary approval Monday in the House.
But it still faces an uphill battle to become law.

The legislation, carried by Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, would require nonprofit 501(c)4 groups that engage in a certain level of political advocacy in Texas to report high-level donors to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The bill targets nonprofit “issue advocacy” groups that can spend money on automated calls, mailers, TV ads, scorecards and other means to attack candidates in elections — as long as they don’t campaign directly for a particular candidate.

The groups fall outside of transparency rules that govern political action committees, enabling them to conceal their donors as long as the group does not spend the majority of its resources on political activities.

Such groups have blossomed in recent years on a national level — “super PACs,” such as Karl Rove’s conservative American Crossroads group, were prominent players in the 2012 presidential campaign — but have also gained increasing power in Texas.

“People want to know who is pouring in millions of dollars to try to buy politicians,” said Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo.

The bill requires such groups that spend more than $25,000 in a year on political activities to report donations of more than $1,000.

It excludes labor unions, which bill sponsors said were carved out because they already operate political action committees subject to reporting rules.

An attempt by some GOP House members to add in the unions, which typically support Democrats, failed on a vote of 89-56, with bill supporters saying that any changes at all would kill the bill so late in the legislative session.

Geren said that in the last election cycle, about $600,000 was spent on elections by just two of these groups in Texas.

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

Opponents argued that the bill would stifle volunteerism and discourage donors. They argue that it targets the conservative grassroots groups that criticize moderate Republicans on their voting records.

“It’s a couple of guys that have a real problem with not wanting their records exposed, and so this is the backhand at the people who have exposed their records,” said Cathie Adams of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. “It’s very sad.”

The bill won preliminary approval on a 99-46 vote, but it must pass muster one more time in the House on Tuesday before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

His staff declined to say whether he would veto the bill, which would affect several of his socially conservative supporters.

“We will review and make a decision on it once it reaches the governor’s desk,” said Perry spokesman Josh Havens.

In addition, the bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is being fought heavily by several grassroots groups that would be affected by it — both on the record and behind the scenes, and reportedly on both sides of the aisle.

The measure almost didn’t make it to the House to begin with. The Senate approved it last month but quickly sought to recall it after senators said they had not realized its scope.

The House declined to relinquish it, but supporters were still under the gun — if any amendments had been approved Monday, it would have gone back to the Senate, where it was likely to die.

Opponents are sure to lobby heavily to kill it before the final House vote Tuesday.

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