Ladies and gentlemen, close your checkbooks. Sunday starts the blackout on campaign contributions to Texas state officeholders — a period of pecuniary protection that will last until after the legislative session that begins in a month.
The no-contributions period, which began in 1987, is designed to put a polite distance between the giving of political money and the casting of governmental votes — to erase the possibility of a Tuesday contribution turning into a Thursday favor, or the possibility that an innocent juxtaposition might be seen the wrong way.
It has proved remarkably difficult in the past to convince nonparticipants that the money and the voting are unrelated. During a 1989 special legislative session — there is no contributions blackout during special sessions — the East Texas poultry tycoon Bo Pilgrim offered checks to nine senators on the Senate floor during a break in the proceedings. He left a blank after “pay to the order of” so the senators could write in the appropriate payee. The name of their political committees, for instance. Or whatever.
Ronnie Earle, Travis County’s top prosecutor at the time, told The Associated Press that he couldn’t make a bribery case of Pilgrim’s donation. “In Texas, it’s almost impossible to bribe a public official as long as you report it,” Earle said.
The contributions blackout took a lot of excitement out of political finance in Texas, but the money still flows, just at other times and venues. The blackout serves as a deadline: Lawmakers who wanted to raise money before Father’s Day had to do it by the end of the day Saturday.
Lawmakers try to raise money now for a variety of reasons. Their accounts are depleted, relatively speaking, after the elections. Many of them supplement the salaries of some of their state employees out of their political accounts and pay their political staffs to remain in business. Some want to have the money in their accounts to caution potential competitors — who wants to run against someone who already has enough money to run a campaign?
On the other side, lobbyists, trade groups and other contributors who wanted to show a little love to the Legislature had until that deadline to weigh in. Venues around Austin were bustling with fund-raisers during the last couple of weeks.
They want to take care of their political friends. It’s a busy and expensive time for some of them, but it gives everyone a chance to recharge the relationships they rely on between elections.
The deadline also serves as the terminus of the political “late train” — the term for contributions given after an election to someone the donor opposed or ignored during the election season. After the election and before the blackout, late donors can get on the late train to reverse their transgressions — to kiss and make up.
The fundraising flurry also serves as a measure of strength. When there is a serious race for speaker of the House, for instance, it’s a time to spy, to see who is contributing to whom, to see how the interests and the members themselves are lining up. It’s the political version of the rituals that take place before a high school prom, full of pairings, snubs, social moves, gaffes and surprises.
In January, the numbers come out. Texas campaign finance laws don’t require final election spending reports from candidates until mid-January, and that is also when the candidates will show how much they raised since Election Day and how much money they have on hand.
The reports are public records of political health. Who has the most money going into a legislative session, and how does it compare with their opponents? Potential candidates for statewide office in 2014 will be able to see how the competition stacks up, where the money is coming from, who is formidable.
The blackout doesn’t apply to everyone — just the state officeholders. Anyone who wants to run but who isn’t in office now has six months to raise money without competition from the incumbents, and they don’t have to report the results for their 2013 efforts until mid-July. Another reason for the pre-deadline rush: During the first half of the year, the challengers have the advantage.