Major GOP Donors, Business Tycoons to Advise Dan Patrick

Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

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Published at 12:54 pm CST