Caveat Emptor


What do you get out of a legislature for $3.8 million? At the very least, anyone who writes that big a check should get two or three bills passed. Thus far this session, the state’s biggest right-wing Christian funder, Dr. James Leininger, hasn’t exactly gotten what he paid for: a voucher program that would move tax money from public to private schools (and additional tort reform legislation that would further limit the rights of individuals filing suits against corporate defendants).

The fault doesn’t lie with Dr. Leininger or his stars but with Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry – who can’t seem to move the Leininger bills. As has been reported in this publication and elsewhere, Leininger provided Perry the $1.1 million loan that allowed him to make a last-minute media buy that quite likely provided the narrow margin by which he defeated Democrat John Sharp. Dr. Leininger and his extended family also provided Perry with $191,577 in campaign contributions, according to an exhaustive study of voucher funding recently released by the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based non-profit group that monitors the extreme right.

When Texas Freedom Network researchers looked beyond Leininger, they found other Christian right funders who (with the San Antonio physician and med-bed manufacturer) put together a total of $5.2 million that the voucher proponents spent on last year’s elections. “That doesn’t take into account the $1 million-plus spent by voucher proponents on public relations and lobbying during each of the last two legislative sessions, the $10 million spent by Dr. James Leininger to acquire a statewide cable news network, TXN, which broadcasts into seventeen of Texas’ nineteen media markets, or the $50 million spent on the nation’s largest private voucher program in Edgewood I.S.D.,” the T.F.N. reported. “In San Antonio [location of Edgewood], $45 million of that $50 million is pledged by Dr. Leininger.”

Despite all that ungodly freespending, the session’s one big voucher bill remains bottled up in the Senate, where eleven Democrats have signed a statement promising they will vote against bringing the bill to the floor. So Amarillo Republican Teel Bivins cannot muster the required two-thirds vote to bring his bill to the floor – despite intense pressure from Perry. The pressure is growing, as the session winds down and more senators are willing to cut deals to move their own bills.

To make a deal easier, Bivins has reduced the scope of his once ambitious voucher plan and allowed the management of the bill to be given over to the Lieutenant Governor and his staff. Perry, in fact, is telling the press the bill should be more widely acceptable now that it is limited to two smaller school districts rather than four large urban districts. And the latest version of the bill has no income cap, a change that Perry says he always supported.

So what was originally proposed as a mechanism to provide academically struggling, low-income children tuition aid to attend private schools is now wide open to any child who fails to pass the TAAS test, regardless of family income. And as the session comes closer to its May 31 conclusion, voucher proponents in the Senate are getting more desperate – as was evident in the last week of April when they failed in an attempt to tack Bivins’ bill onto a separate teacher pay raise bill.

“They’ve gone from four major urban districts, to two smaller school districts,” said a Democratic Senate staff aide. “Next is one district as a pilot, and then they will strip it down to a vote on the concept of vouchers.” Through the first week in May, the bill has moved on and off the Senate’s intent calendar, but the eleven senators are still committed to blocking the bill, said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network.

Leininger isn’t the only voucher supporter to whom Perry is indebted. According to the Freedom Network’s study, Houston chemical company C.E.O. William McMinn provided the Lieutenant Governor $80,000 in campaign contributions. McMinn was the second largest voucher funder, contributing $299,832 to candidates and $207,000 to political action committees. And Dallas oil and gas magnate Louis Beecherl, a former member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, gave Perry $37,000. Beecherl provided other pro-voucher candidates with $299,724 in contributions and added an additional $207,000 in voucher PAC contributions. Along with McMinn, Beecherl serves on the board of directors of Putting Children First, the largest pro-voucher political action committee in the state.

Leininger, McMinn, and Beecherl have secular interests beyond the religious right’s voucher initiatives. The three top funders of the voucher lobby are also heavily invested in tort reform, the decade-old assault on citizens’ right to file suit against corporate defendants. Texans for Public Justice, an Austin research and advocacy group, has run the numbers on tort-reform contributors and found that Leininger, McMinn and Beecherl all made the list T.P.J. calls “Tort Reform’s Sweet Sixteen.” Leininger is the number one funder of tort reform candidates and lobby efforts, with McMinn placing third and Beecherl rounding out the Sweet Sixteen list at number sixteen.

But tort reform has also been struggling in the Senate this session. The first time Teel Bivins tried to bring up the session’s big tort reform bill – which would make class action lawsuits more difficult to pursue – Democrats denied him the necessary twenty-one votes to bring it to the floor. The Senate is so protocol-bound that one or two such incidents can erode a bill’s credibility, but one week later Bivins had improved his counting and on April 26 his class action bill passed the Senate. It is hardly assured passage in the House, where it will have to either get through Fred Bosse’s often uncivil Civil Practices Committee or be attached as an amendment to a related bill on the floor. The other major tort reform effort (a third party liability bill) is, according to its Senate sponsor, dead.

Added together, the voucherites and the tort reformers have poured $6 million into their electoral and legislative programs this year and yet they are not exactly getting a big bang for their buck – which suggests that even in the Texas Legislature, a handful of determined elected officials and a wider grassroots effort that money can’t buy can stop even the most well-funded initiative. And one more thing: you don’t always get what you pay for. – L.D.