This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Updated May 14, 1:40 p.m.
A divisive measure requiring the disclosure of certain unreported political donors passed the Texas House on a 95-52 vote on Tuesday, denying the Texas Senate's desire to have it back in its clutches. The measure, which passed Tuesday with little of Monday's debate, now heads to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said now that the measure has passed, the governor will take a final look at the language before determining whether he'll sign it.
A divisive measure requiring the disclosure of certain unreported political donors won early approval in the Texas House on Monday — denying, for the moment, the Texas Senate's desire to have it back in its clutches.
If Senate Bill 346 gets final approval in the lower chamber on Tuesday without amendments, as its supporters are hoping, it would go straight to the governor's desk rather than back to the Senate. The bill passed the upper chamber in April in a vote a majority of senators now say they'd like to revisit.
SB 346, by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would force tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits that fall under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code — the part that oversees groups involved in “social welfare” — to disclose their donors. The bill, which would affect major political givers on both sides of the aisle, originally passed the Senate 23-6; a day later, led by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, senators voted 21-10 to reverse themselves, some saying they hadn’t understood what the bill required. Seliger said at the time that his colleagues had faced heavy lobbying by major political donors to change their votes.
The Senate’s effort was too late; the measure was already in the custody of the House. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, has been shepherding the measure through the lower chamber, working to get it passed without amendments so it doesn't have to return to the Senate.
“Certain groups keep scorecards and continuously bombard the internet. All that’s fine, it’s what this process is about,” Geren said. “The problem occurs when these groups wade deep into the political process … and use a loophole that keeps their donors secret.”
Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative activist whose organizations, Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, routinely work on behalf of — and against — Republican candidates he deems too moderate, tried to convince House lawmakers to defeat the measure. In an email ahead of Monday's debate, he said Seliger and Geren “want to open up every single donor to every single conservative group (home-school, pro-life, fiscal, property rights and so on) in Texas to be vulnerable to attack.”
Though many believe his organizations would fall under the purview of the bill, Sullivan said that’s still unclear, that it “probably all depends on how folks are corporately organized.” The measure "would clearly impact a large number of groups left and right,” he added.
In the 2012 election cycle, groups that used the 501(c)(4) designation spent more than $300 million to influence elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Geren successfully fended off several amendments, some of which would have cleaned up language related to labor unions that even the bill's supporters acknowledge isn't perfect. He said that can be done during House debate on an omnibus Texas Ethics Commission reform bill.
If, by chance, the House amends the measure on third reading and the bill requires lawmakers from both chambers to meet in conference committee, Seliger said he'd be sure that Patrick takes a close look.
"You can bet on one thing," Seliger said. "I'm going to insist that he read it."
Barring amendments, it's unclear whether Gov. Rick Perry will sign SB 346 in its current form.
Chris Hooks contributed to this report.