The talons came out in the Texas Senate on Wednesday when Houston Republican Dan Patrick took the largely unprecedented move of recalling a bill that had passed the previous day.
The bill in question, SB-346, by Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, would change the state election code so that 501(c)(4) nonprofits operating in the political realm would be required to disclose their donors, as political action committees (PACs) already must do. On Tuesday, the bill was met with little discussion and passed the chamber with a 23-6 vote. Patrick’s recall resolution cleared the Senate in a 21-10 vote.
It was a total about-face for the chamber, in other words, and one that left transparency advocates pinning their hopes on the Texas House—which already has the original bill, and therefore may be able to proceed with it, regardless of whether the Senate wants to pass recall bills in the meantime.
Seliger was none too pleased by Patrick’s suggestion and during twenty minutes of debate over the recall, the “Kumbaya” session seemed very far away.
When Patrick brought up SCR-33 on Wednesday, he explained that he had mistakenly voted for the bill the day before while he was off the floor. “This is an unusual resolution,” he acknowledged, “but one that I feel strongly about.” He maintained his recall resolution was necessary because the bill would lead to “a violation of First Amendment rights” and “unintended consequences.”
Seliger fired back at Patrick’s claims. “This bill in no way … abridges the right to make that contribution or for that contribution to be spent for political purposes,” he said. “It requires that they be revealed.”
The first amendment, Seliger continued, had nothing to do with it: “I’m interested in why you would want political organizations and organizations that take money for political purposes, why you think the public should not know who [their donors] are, because, Senator, this is about nothing more than transparency.”
Watching the debate, it was hard not to get the impression that the bill was also, in part, about Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative activist who has challenged a number of Republican incumbents, in recent years, over what he sees as doctrinal unsoundness.
His 501(c)(4), Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, would be the most high-profile group required to disclose contributions under Seliger’s measure. During the 2012 elections, “Empower Texans dba Texans for Fiscal Responsibility” spent $352,000 in Texas races, according to the state ethics commission. A full $333,000 of that money was spent during the primary cycle to support opponents to Speaker Joe Straus and those allied with him. None of these donors were disclosed.
(And Sullivan, as Texas Monthly’s Nate Blakeslee noted in his profile of him in January, faced an ethics complaint filed by two Republican legislators last April that alleged he had acted as a lobbyist without registering as one.)
The portion of the bill analysis devoted to the author’s statement of intent* is fairly pointed:
There are organizations that operate in Texas that collect donations and make political expenditures with the primary intention of determining election outcomes. Many of these organizations have interpreted the current definition of political committee differently, arguing that they are not political committees, and therefore do not need to comply with the Texas Ethics Commission on campaign disclosure rules. The Texas Ethics Commission believes that these organizations are political committees as that term is defined in Section 251.001(12), Election Code. By clarifying this definition to include all entities this bill will enable the Texas Ethics Commission to ensure a more transparent window into campaign expenditures in Texas.
In addition to arguing with Patrick on the merits—the bill had, after all, passed the Senate merely a day before—Seliger took issue with his approach.
“This is the first time during my time of service that I’ve seen someone want to bring a bill back because they regret their vote,” Seliger said. (When bills are typically recalled to their originating chamber it is so legislators can correct typos and tweak sloppy language, not to debate or change the substance of the bill.)
“This is not about me making a mistake on the bill,” retorted Patrick. “This is about me looking at an issue that violates the first amendment of the Constitution.”
Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic Senator from San Antonio, pointed out that potential constitutional problems don’t seem to bother the legislature when they vote on other issues, including voting rights, restricting, and choice issues, and that a democracy has checks and balances for a reason.
“Voters deserve transparency in elections—it is paramount to a representative democracy,” she said in a statement.
Things got even more tense between the two Senators when Seliger asked if Patrick often votes on bills he has not read, leading Patrick to fire back: “I’m not going to stand here and be insulted by you.”
John Carona, a Republican from Dallas, stepped in to try to smooth Patrick’s ruffled feathers. “I think you’re having a wonderful session,” he said, while urging him to table his recall effort and adopt a “quieter, perhaps more subtle means to deal” with his mistaken vote (such as making a written note in the journal about his issues with SB 346) in order the avoid the “friction and fracture” this recall resolution could cause in the chamber.
“I think this is the type of issue that creates personal hardships amongst us that, when they can be avoided ought to be avoided,” Carona said, adding that Patrick’s recall effort could open the door to future ones.
In an interview Wednesday evening, Seliger said that the day’s vote amounted to a “defense of the lack of transparency by people who were very insistent in being in favor of transparency.” And transparency, Seliger added, is the ingredient that “enables the electorate to make informed choices and give proper weight” to candidates.
Seliger also worried that Patrick’s recall effort would set a “terrible precedent” for the chamber—and quickly rattled off the names of the eight Democrats who had supported SB-346 on Tuesday, but backed Patrick’s resolution on Wednesday. (A ninth Democrat, Houston Senator John Whitmire, was absent to attend a funeral Tuesday but voted for Patrick’s recall.)
The fact that so many Democrats switched overnight raised some speculation. Sen. Kirk Watson, Chair of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus, explained his vote in a statement Thursday: “It became clear on the floor that there were concerns about unintended consequences,” Watson said. “This process exists, at the end of the day, to help legislators correct mistakes, not tie their hands and prevent them from doing what they feel is right. My colleagues wanted to correct what they felt to be a mistake, and I didn’t—and don’t—think that was unreasonable.”
The clearly frustrated Seliger might take some comfort in the fact that the prospect of SB 346 returning to the Senate floor for a rehearing does not look bright. Concurrent resolutions, as their name implies, must be approved by both houses—and the Texas House already has the bill.
“Senate Bill 346 has been referred to the House State Affairs Committee,” Jason Embry, a spokesman for Straus, said in a statement. “The House has not been notified of any effort by the Senate to recall the bill.”
It is set for a hearing next week. In an interview with the Quorum Report Wednesday, Fort Worth Republican Republican Charlie Geren, a member of that committee, made it clear that he thinks the Senate’s work on the subject is done. “Senator Patrick is welcome to come testify against the bill,” Geren added, “if he feels the need to.”
*Correction: A prior version of this story misstated who wrote the quoted portion of the bill analysis. It was Senator Seliger, not the Senate Research Center. We regret the error.