Page 13


PACs, lobbies, candidates DISCLOSURE By Steven Oaks Houston state, but that was time enough for me to over see a full season of and what oug Texas electioneering, encompassing primary, general and special elections, as the state’s chief election officer. What I saw from that vantage point convinced me that without a new round of remedial legislation, the integrity of our elections and our lawmaking stands in jeopardy. The danger stems, ironically, from a body of law intended to safeguard the electoral and legislative process against the intrusion of improper influence. The 1973 reform Legislature responded decisively to the revelations that came out of the Sliarpstown influence-buying scandal: lobbyists were required to identify themselves and reveal the extent of their activity, candidates and political action committees had to take the wraps off their sources of campaign money and tell how they spent it, and officeholders had to disclose the nature of their financial interests. These laws were widely applauded as the toughest in the nation, guaranteeing that the people of Texas would know, when they entered the voting booths, who was getting what from whom. But the disclosure system set up by these measures hasn’t worked out as intended. Since 1973, the flow of money into the political process from private sources has become a flood, not only in terms of the amount spent, but also in terms of the number of PACs deciding how to spend it all. Yet the people are not getting the kind of information they need, they are often not getting it at all at the time when they could put it to best usebefore an election and there is next to nothing the secretary of state’s office can do under current law to remedy the situation. At the same time, some requirements of these laws are so hard to figure out or so picky that they discourage ordinary citizens from taking part in politics. The best illustration of the latter problem is the Lobby Control Act. The laudable purpose of this legislation was to make public the identities, activities and expenditures of persons who try to pass, amend or defeat a bill in the Legislature. Testimony to the statute’s stringency was the registration during the last regular session of over 3,000 lobbyists, more than in any other But is that remarkable number a measure of the law’s effectiveness at making salaried interest-group representatives subject to public scrutiny? Not necessarily. As construed in an opinion of the attorney general, the Lobby Control Act commands that anybody who is paid or reimbursed for trying to influence legislation must register as a lobbyist and meet the reporting requirements. So’ a volunteer from a local civic group becomes a lobbyist in the eyes of the law as soon as he or she accepts reimbursement from an organization for the bus fare it takes to travel to Austin for a talk with a representative about some prospective legislation. At a minimum, this volunteer must file a registration form, a supplemental registration and activities report, and a form stating that his or her activities have ceased; failure to do so is punishable as a Class A misdemeanor by a fine of up to $2,000, or up to a year in jail, or both. Thus, in the name of reform and disclosure, the law as interpreted and applied tends to deter participation by the average citizen and essentially abridges First Amendment rights to speak out freely on proposed legislation. What’s more, it makes a bureaucratic mess of the job of monitoring the activity of the real lobbyists. To put the emphasis where it belongs, the Legislature should exempt from the Lobby Control Act anyone who receives compensation or reimbursement of less than $200 per calendar quarter. While the lobbying law places a needless burden on the ordinary citizen, the ‘reporting requirements for political action committees under the campaign disclosure law show signs of benign neglect. As the law now stands, these committees, which are the major source of campaign contributions, may operate with virtual anonymity, reporting no more than the committee’s name \(often an indecipherable acronym or a label that in no way with its treasurer’s name and address, which may be a post office box. The reformers of 1973 saw nothing wrong with PACs per se, and I believe they have a legitimate role to play in raising money from their members and contributing it to campaigns. But I also believe the public has the right to know the PAC’s true identity, where it gets its money, the occupational interest it represents, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3 I served only 13 What’s wrong with the laws months as secretary of ht to be done