Special interest donors are covering much of the cost for Texas Democratic lawmakers to stay in pricey Washington, D.C., hotel rooms, but Texas taxpayers are still losing close to $500,000 on expenses for a legislative session that isn’t happening.
Texas lawmakers who fled the legislative session in Austin for the nation’s capital ultimately will have to report all of the private money pouring in for the self-professed “fugitive” Democrats. That amount includes at least $600,000 from the political action committee of former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ran for president in 2020.
These Democrats have raised money from other sources as well to cover lodging, meals, and other expenses.
Racking up costs and private donations, more than 50 Democrats, along with 12 paid staffers, on Friday marked the halfway point of the special legislative session they abandoned back home. Democrats fled to deny the state Legislature’s Republican majority a quorum to vote on an election reform bill.
The session ends Aug. 6, after which the Democrats are expected to return home.
One Texas House Democrat said it’s costing the group $10,000 per day for hotel rooms and meals.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take to beat back Republicans’ anti-voter bills. That’s why I need your help,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said in a tweet as the lawmakers were leaving Texas. “Every day we are away costs $10,000 for hotel and meals.”
Burden for Texas Taxpayers
As of Friday, the midpoint of the special session, taxpayers in Texas were spending at least $476,630 on a session that isn’t happening because of House Democrats’ exodus, according to an ongoing tally by GOP state Rep. Jared Patterson.
More than five dozen House Democrats and paid aides took the trip to Washington. But state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said on Twitter, “No tax dollars have been used for travel, meals, or any other accommodations.”
Texas is still losing money from a special session that isn’t happening because Democrats flew to Washington, Patterson explained.
“A session costs $43,000 per day and that equals a teacher’s salary,” the GOP lawmaker told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “This is a conservative estimate that just looks at a couple of components.”
Those two components are the daily per diem of $221 for every day that a legislator is in session. The other is the increased budget to operate legislative offices during a special session.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s better to choose fundraising in D.C. and lobbying Congress over their constituents in Texas,” Patterson said. “Texans believe you should show up for work.”
A small number of lawmakers reportedly said they would pay back their per diem to the state treasury.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Patterson said of Democrats’ forgoing their pay. “They haven’t yet, and have to fill out the paperwork to do so.”
KHOU-TV News reported that all the Texas legislators are continuing to receive their per diems.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus did not respond to inquiries from The Daily Signal for this article.
Rules for Disclosure
Texas Democrats have 30 days to report campaign contributions after the end of the session, set for Aug. 6. However, Texas lawmakers have until next April to report gifts—or something of value—in annual financial disclosures.
Ethics experts say private donors covering the cost of transportation, hotels, and meals most likely would be an in-kind campaign contribution to the state legislators, as opposed to a gift.
In addition to O’Rourke’s Powered by People PAC, the Texas House Democratic Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus are raising money for the Washington trip, The Texas Tribune reported.
“Whether something given to an officeholder is reported as a political contribution or reported as a gift depends on the intent for which it is given,” J.R. Johnson, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, told The Daily Signal in an email, adding:
If something is given to an officeholder with the intent that it be used either in connection with a campaign for elective office or to defray expenses incurred in connection with holding an office, then the officeholder typically must report it as a political contribution.
On the other hand, if something is given to an officeholder for any other purpose, the officeholder must report it as a gift, unless an exception applies.
Even though the money coming to the Texas Democrats isn’t expressly for campaign purposes, it is being used for matters related to their legislative jobs.
The Texas lawmakers met with Vice President Kamala Harris and with congressional Democrats to lobby for passage of national legislation to nullify most state voter ID laws and expand the controversial practice of ballot harvesting, among many other provisions.
“So, whether something is a political contribution or a gift depends on the specific facts, but if it’s intended to cover a cost related to any activity performed in connection with the public office, then it is a political contribution,” Johnson, the Texas Ethics Commission counsel, said.
Special Session Agenda
The special session in Texas wasn’t only to consider the election reform legislation. Democrats’ absence also is preventing votes on a foster care bill, bail reform legislation, a property tax cut, a legislative staff budget, and a boost to state retiree pensions, noted Chad Ennis, senior fellow for the Election Protection Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Ennis said the Texas election reform proposal would expand minimum in-person, early-voting hours; ban drive-through and 24-hour voting; outlaw paid ballot harvesting, in which political employees are paid per completed ballot returned to election officials; and apply voter ID standards to mail-in ballots.
“People who are engaged want [Texas House Democrats] to come back. If you debate this, if you lose, you lose,” Ennis told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “Or you might get concessions. Leaving the state is not selling with the public.”
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