Foundations and Empire
After four years of Republican dominance in Austin, you can throw a dart at the organizational chart of Texas government and reliably hit a state agency corrupted by influence peddling of some sort. There’s no better example of the pay-to-play culture that has infected Texas politics in recent years than the brief history of the Texas Residential Construction Commission.
Created in 2003, the agency with a mouthful of a name is supposed to police the homebuilding industry by helping consumers who move into new homes, only to find that the foundation is cracked, the roof leaks, or the electric outlets ignite fires. It’s almost as if the agency was designed to benefit the biggest names in the home construction business. Wait a second! It was. The commission developed a lengthy bureaucratic process that delays disgruntled homeowners from taking their builders to court or arbitration. It also rips off small construction firms, requiring builders to register with the commission for the handsome fee of $500. This pseudo-licensing process is a sham. As we report on page 16 of this issue, many builders whose licenses have been revoked are blatantly building anyway, and the commission lacks the resources and power to stop them. The TRCC oversees bad builders in the same blind-eye manner with which Major League Baseball handles its steroid-infused sluggers.
That’s the way it was supposed to be. The Residential Construction Commission was created to help keep the state’s major homebuilding companies-who are some of the state’s most prolific contributors to political campaigns-out of court. Exhibit A is one Bob Perry, head of Houston-based Perry Homes. Mr. Perry gets sued a lot: His company has been named in more than 60 lawsuits in Harris County alone in the past 15 years, according to court records. He’s also Texas’ No.1 campaign contributor, a veritable ATM for Republican candidates: Since 2001, he’s contributed $15 million to campaigns in Texas, largely to the GOP.
For that kind of dough, you can apparently receive your own state agency. Perry’s corporate attorney not only wrote most of the bill that created the TRCC, but also serves on its board. Perry is just the most blatant example. The pet bills and programs the legislative leadership has muscled through to appease a crony or major campaign contributor during the past four years are too numerous to list.
Recently, though, there have been hopeful signs that the culture of influence peddling has begun to wane. House Speaker Tom Craddick’s once-unshakable grip on the lower chamber has weakened considerably. Craddick can no longer force donor-friendly legislation through the House, and state reps have shown a dangerous appetite for democracy lately. In early May, House members voted to overrule one of Craddick’s parliamentary rulings-a stinging rebuke for the speaker that only fed speculation he won’t win a fourth term on the dais.
When the House wasn’t bucking Craddick, it was embarrassing one of his main financial backers-San Antonio millionaire and school voucher zealot James Leininger. He’s one of the few GOP moneymen who hasn’t received a legislative goodie since 2003. In the 2006 election cycle, Leininger spent nearly $5 million on pro-voucher candidates. But when vouchers came before the House in March-in an amendment to the state budget-it went down hard, 129-8. (Leininger spent roughly $625,000 per vote.)
Even the Residential Construction Commission may undergo reform. House Bill 1038 would give the TRCC greater enforcement authority to better regulate homebuilders.
The Texas Legislature, God bless it, may always be a fountain of bad policy and short-sighted legislation. But it’s starting to look a bit more like a democracy.