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New Boss Same as the Old Boss?

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During Rick Perry’s tenure as governor, finding the nexus between campaign donations and government contracts or public policy was about as difficult as finding a rock in a quarry. Along with a few others, I practically made a career out of seeing the dots and putting them together. The library of material was so extensive that when Sarah Palin started talking about “crony capitalism” during the 2011-12 presidential campaign there was little doubt that her remarks were aimed at Perry. Now that Greg Abbott has replaced Perry, we should start wondering what all the money that put Abbott in the governor’s office will or won’t buy. Although we can easily say Abbott will be conservative as governor, it is still too early to tell whether he will feel a necessity to reward those political donors beyond a few appointments as university regents or to the Parks & Wildlife Commission. At the same time, when the inaugural committee for Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a list of donors to the $4.7 million party, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was a report of the investment bank for would-be supplicants or a check list of special thank-you notes that Abbott and Patrick will have to sign.

Most of the first-glance news reports on the subject looked at the most obvious donors: Walmart, which wants a state liquor license or Charles and David Koch, who want government downsizing. There were questions raised about a state lottery vendor, Gtech, giving $50,000, and about how other donations came from gambling interests. The devil, however, often is not among the usual suspects who will turn up at the top of the list in almost every major Republican campaign in Texas. (Note, the Democrats have their list of regular donors as well, but I don’t care about them at the moment.) The story of how government operates often is in that second tier of donors, the unusual or the ignored. So I borrowed the list from the Texas Tribune and went through it to find some of the donations that aren’t regularly the scrutiny of media watchdogs. Here’s just a few:

Richie’s Specialty Pharmacy LLC, $100,000 – This donor ultimately could make those past contributions to Texas politicians by East Texas poultry magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim look like chicken feed. The left-leaning Texans for Public Justice last year noted that Conroe compound pharmacy owner J. Richard “Richie” Ray had donated $350,000 to Abbott’s campaign. At issue was whether the compound drugs sold by the pharmacy are safe and whether Abbott was blocking the possible disclosure of the pharmacy as the supplier of Texas’ lethal injection drugs. Ray was adamant to the Texas Observer that he had never supplied drugs for lethal injections. As attorney general, Abbott sued and won a judgment against one compounding pharmacy, Dallas-based ApotheCure, whose drugs were involved in three deaths. While no such accusations have involved Richie’s, greater state regulation of compounding pharmacies may be in the future under the new governor. (See my additional comment below.)

HNTB Corporation, $25,000 – The company last year obtained a contract with the Texas Department of Transportation to procure engineering services for public-private partnership projects, including Southern Gateway in Dallas, I-35 in Austin and San Antonio and a South Padre Island project. In the past, the company also was involved in the development of State Highway 130. But HNTB probably got the most unwanted attention because of cost overruns associated with the $144 million no-bid contract the firm received from the state’s Department of Rural Affairs to administer federal grants to Texas communities stricken by Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. The hurricane contract was criticized harshly because former aides to Gov. Rick Perry worked as HNTB’s lobbyist.

Fluor Enterprises Inc, $50,000 – Another of the Texas Department of Transportation’s regular contractors. In 2002, the company was part of a controversy involving a $30,000 contribution its political committee made to Gov. Perry just five days before signing a $1.5 billion contract as part of a consortium to build part of the Texas 130 toll road. 

MCNA Health Care Holdings LLC, $50,000 – A manager of Medicaid and CHIP health insurance in Texas. The company’s registered lobbyists include two former commissioners of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission: Tom Suehs and Albert Hawkins.

HCA Hospital Corporation of America, $50,000 – HCA in the third quarter of last year reported it would have a $68 million reduction in Medicaid revenues related to the Texas Medicaid Waiver Program because the state HHSC had reinterpreted reimbursement rules. Those reimbursement rules can drive Texas hospital administrators into a frenzy. 

United HealthCare System Inc., $25,000 – Blue Cross of Texas in 2012 protested when the Texas Employee Retirement System yanked its contract for managing state employee health insurance and awarded the contract to United. A former Perry chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was representing United at the time. 

Chesapeake Energy for Texas PAC, Chevron Products Co., Devon Energy Corp., and Occidental Petroleum, each gave the inaugural committee $25,000. The companies also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the unsuccessful effort to defeat Denton’s ban on hydraulic fracturing. Abbott has promised to fight to eliminate local municipal regulations banning plastic grocery bags and hydraulic fracturing. Abbott said Texas is being “California-ized,” but apparently his inaugural committee has been “Perry-ized.”

Just call me angel of the morning? On another front in the world of campaign finance, the time to say no to a political contribution is before you take it. Freshman state Senator Konni Burton on Friday announced a policy of not meeting with hired-gun lobbyists who are paid by local governments in her district: “Many taxpayers don’t even realize their own money is being used to pay lobbyists who are down in Austin, advocating for policies that could be in direct conflict with their own beliefs. As I said on the campaign trail over and over… I am here to defend and represent the taxpayer. Shining a light on this practice by not participating in it is helping to do just that. Our office is more than willing to meet with any lobbyist regarding issues facing businesses, individuals, or trade organizations, just not those who are getting paid with taxpayer dollars, who very well could be pushing policy that is in direct conflict with the will of the people. We are happy to work with local officials directly, and we would rather see these tax dollars that are used to pay lobbyists returned to the taxpayer, where it belongs.”

The issue of whether local governments should be hiring outside lobbyists is a legitimate one, and Burton has carved out her stance. At the same time, if Burton did not want to meet with such lobbyists, she probably shouldn’t have taken their money during her campaign. A quick review of Burton’s political committee shows she took at least $11,750 from lobbyists and lobby groups that represent – for pay – local governments in Burton’s district or the greater Fort Worth Area. Lobbyists always have told me their campaign contributions don’t buy votes. They say they don’t buy influence. The money, the lobbyists say, just buys access to the politician. Burton took their money and then rejected their access. Perhaps this is just a rookie mistake, but it likely will make it harder for Burton to raise money from the Austin lobby in future races.

In fairness to all of the above, I want to disclose my own conflict of interest. Most of the old-timers at the Capitol will know this, but enough of you are new that disclosure is needed. My wife for much of the past 18 years has been the main spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. Because of that, I avoid writing about issues such as private school vouchers or Common Core or education policy in general. She and I don’t always agree on issues, so there is no sense saddling her with my views or having people believe I’m shilling for the TEA. That doesn’t mean I avoid issues such as the funding of public schools or the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, because those things are controlled by the Legislature and a separate state agency. But I go out of my way to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, so I’m telling you I have one across the dining table.

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