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Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Lawmaker

Giving up 20 weeks of every other year to serve in the Texas Legislature is a lot easier if you don't have to worry about the paycheck you're missing at home. It is easier, in other words, if you're rich.

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Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

You don’t have to be rich to be a state legislator in Texas, but it doesn’t hurt.

The state’s time-honored “citizen-legislator” system assumes lawmakers will have regular jobs and will visit Austin periodically to make law, earning their keep on one end of the trip and doing public service on the other.

But it’s easier to pay attention to public service if the regular job is sufficient. When it’s not, members could arguably be open to the influence of those who are willing to do favors for them.

One argument for the well-to-do came up in an interview with actor Clint Eastwood, a former mayor of Carmel, Calif., who told Esquire magazine in 2008 why he ran in 1986. “It’s making sure that the words ‘public servant’ are not forgotten. That’s why I did it. 'Cause I thought, I don’t need this. The fact that I didn’t need it made me think I could do more. It’s the people who need it that I’m suspect of.”

Texas has a fair number of legislators who — in financial terms, anyway — don’t need this. The best-known example is Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. According to filings he made with the federal government during his run last year for the U.S. Senate, Dewhurst reported a net worth approaching $200 million. That would have made him the third-richest member of that body, had he won election.

Former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney says that in the Legislature, those who aren’t as well off can still manage just fine.

“There’s some that try to make it without it being obvious that they’re broke,” Laney said. “The per diem has made a little difference in that. And so has the larger staff. That’s let some of them do a little more.”

Even so, the legislative job pays only $600 a month. The daily payments while lawmakers are out of their district on state business — when they’re in Austin, for instance — add to that, but not a lot. With the per diem pay for a legislative session added in, a state lawmaker in Texas makes an average of $17,700 annually. A full-time minimum wage earner makes $15,080 per year.

The real benefit is in the legislative pension, which vests after eight years in office and is based on the $125,000 annual pay of state district judges (an amount set to increase to $150,000 in the budget now working its way through the Legislature). A lawmaker retiring with 20 years in office would receive an annual pension payment of $57,500 for the rest of his or her life.

It’s not fair to generalize about the wealth of the lawmakers in a Legislature that has seen its share of wealthy misers and generous paupers. Sometimes, the lawmakers don’t know the details about one another.

“You’ve got people who are always hitting people up for a job,” Laney said. “You’ve got some that are wealthy but nobody knows it.”

But lobbyists and others seeking leverage with lawmakers do pay attention, according to former state Rep. Tommy Merritt, a seven-term Republican from Longview. A member who is scraping out a living might be more susceptible to trading favors.

“The difference is that the legislator who can’t afford it is susceptible to influence that might not even register to him as influence,” Merritt said. “They see that it’s legal, that everybody does it. They start to believe there is nothing wrong with it.”

Though Dewhurst has been in office in Texas since 1998, the voters in his home state could only guess at his actual wealth until last year. Texas disclosure laws, in this regard, allow candidates to give much fuzzier answers to questions about their assets and income. In fact, the state’s personal financial disclosure forms effectively prevent lawmakers and candidates from giving precise answers, even if they were so inclined.

Officials have to list the number of shares they own in a particular stock, within ranges (i.e., fewer than 100, 101 to 499 and so on up to a maximum of 10,000 or more). If they sold anything, they have to report a net gain or loss, again in ranges, with the highest being $25,000 or more. A gain of $25,001, for purposes of reporting stock sales in Texas, is identical on the reports to a gain of $25 million. Reformers of all political stripes have been calling for updates to those ranges for years, with no effect.

The reporting is not completely opaque, however. Some examples from The Texas Tribune’s Ethics Explorer, a compilation of data culled from lawmakers' personal financial disclosures to the state:

  • Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is president and CEO of the largest homeowners association management company in the U.S. His Dallas home is valued at $7 million.
  • Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, owns 748 acres of land in Colorado worth $12.3 million and lives in a 13,975-square-foot home in Jacksonville.
  • Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, owns a home in Carmel, Calif., valued at $1.1 million. The stock listings in his state-required financial disclosure go on for 62 pages. 
  • Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, owns a $1.4 million residence in Houston and $3.7 million in real estate near Brenham.
  • House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has an insurance and investments business and extensive stock holdings.
  • Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, owns multimillion-dollar homes in Austin, Dallas and in Utah, and a house in his hometown worth $318,000. He owns a title company.
  • Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is a real estate broker, owns a barbecue restaurant, has a ranch in Johnson County and owns an interest in a Fort Worth landfill.
  • Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, owns a $451,650 home in Galveston, a $3 million home in Austin and his own law firm.
  • Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, a former House speaker, owns homes in Midland and in Llano that together are worth $1.6 million, and several properties in Midland and Travis counties through various partnerships.

Not everyone in the Legislature has assets like those to report.

And lawmakers who need things — jobs, meals, campaign donations, whatever — are easier to influence, at least in theory. But without pointing to anyone by name, Merritt and others say wealth isn’t the only key to that. Some wealthy members are just as close to outsiders and lobbyists as their less prosperous coworkers.

“It is a rich man’s game, and you are making everybody susceptible to undue influence when you put them in that position,” said Rita Kirk, director of the Maguire Ethics Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“If they offer you a meal when you need one, you’re going to be more influenced by that if you had no need of it,” she said. “We are influenced when we need the favor.”

On the wealth side, voters need to know where the money is, what the investments are, and whether that is connected in some way to what the lawmaker is doing in office. On the poorer side, the question is — to use Kirk’s example — who’s paying for dinner?

The first situation is troublesome when disclosure standards are low. The second might be solvable, if Texans are willing to pay high enough salaries to make lawmakers less susceptible to high-culture panhandling.

“What you’re trying to do is find some healthy balance,” Kirk said. “Voters should be able to make decisions between people who have ideologies like theirs or that can represent them well. We eliminate a whole cross-section of people who can’t afford it and who perhaps are unduly influenced by the fact that they have to take money in order to serve.

“Really, if we want good government,” she said, “there is a certain amount we have to pay for it.”

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