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Change in Campaign Law Would Eliminate Penalties For Violators

Texas politicians with mistakes on their campaign finance reports will be able to correct them without penalties if the governor signs a bill approved during the regular legislative session.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, swears in Sen. Mike Jackson as President Pro Tempore on May 30th, 2011

Texas politicians with mistakes on their campaign finance reports will be able to correct them without penalties if the governor signs a bill approved during the regular legislative session.

The aim was to protect members from nitpicking enforcement of campaign finance laws, according to the sponsor, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. The legislation doesn't make any distinction between small mistakes and large ones. A change meant to free candidates from big fines for small mistakes could also free candidates from suffering any consequences for big reporting violations.

The amendment, added by Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, and approved in both the Senate and the House, gives filers 14 business days after a complaint has been made to fix their reports without being assessed a penalty so long as there was no "intent to mislead or to misrepresent the information contained in the report."

Proving intent isn't easy and the provision applies no matter what dollar amount is in question. Geren thinks it would be hard to get away with much.

"I don't think anybody can raise a million dollars and say it was a mistake and not be lying," he says. "I don't think you get off on the major stuff."

Still, he admits the legislation might need some cleanup; the amendment was added near the end of the session to a bill that was originally meant to crack down on personal expenses and reimbursements in campaign accounts.

As an example, Geren says the Texas Ethics Commission once proposed to fine him $2,700 for a $700 contribution that was accidentally left off of his report. The fine was eventually reduced to $500, but other candidates have similar horror stories.

"We may find that the wording is not tight enough and we may find we have to tighten it up," Geren says.

A candidate who found a mistake and filed a corrected report would still face the penalties that are in current law; the 14-business-day grace period for fixing mistakes without penalty only applies after a complaint has been filed.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry says the bill is under review, like other legislation that's gone to the governor, but didn't indicate what he might do. Geren suggested that if the bill needs fixing, it can be done in special session this summer. Jackson told the Austin American-Statesman that he didn't intend to create a way for serious violators to avoid punishment. He said he has asked the governor to veto the legislation. 

"I'm writing a letter asking the governor to veto the bill," Jackson told the Statesman. "I don't think he'll sign it after our conversation."

David Reisman, director of the Texas Ethics Commission, says the measure could take away most of the agency's revenue from fines — about $300,000 over the two-year budget cycle. During the last fiscal year, he says, the agency received 374 complaints about reports. The agency assesses about $200,000 in fines each year. The agency doesn't have a position on the issue, but he says it could remove the incentives to accurately report campaign contributions and expenditures.

The legislation, HB 1616, requires lawmakers to report proceeds from the sales of assets purchased with campaign money and requires them to report reimbursements and refunds of any money spent from their campaign accounts. State Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, told the Associated Press during last year's campaign that he had reimbursed expenses from both his campaign and state account; he attributed that double-billing to an accounting mistake. This legislation would require candidates to report whether they've been reimbursed elsewhere for campaign spending.

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State government Campaign finance Charlie Geren Griffin Perry Rick Perry State agencies Texas Ethics Commission