This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
A remarkably expensive meeting of a key legislative committee took place this week: a $22,000-plus affair at an upscale downtown Austin steakhouse for the 15-member House Calendars Committee.
That panel, which sets the daily lineup of bills for consideration in the House and thus holds life-or-death power over legislation, held its end-of-session dinner at Austin’s III Forks restaurant this past Sunday.
It cost $22,241.03 and required the use of 34 American Express cards, 11 MasterCards and 20 Visa cards. The committee chairman, state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, said there were about 140 people there, and most of them stayed for dinner.
That’s an extraordinary amount of money, as these things go, but the events themselves are common. In a tradition that stretches back as far as anyone can remember, committees in the Texas Legislature throw self-congratulatory dinners to celebrate the completion of their work.
“It’s a large gathering,” Hunter said of the Calendars dinner. “All committees do it. I don’t know how people have done it in the past. I don’t even know the amount. We invite the committee and we invite their staffs, and then we involve lobbyists and outside folks. Some of them are not lobbyists. I don’t know who paid. You can go find out.”
It was an expensive celebration, but the legislators and staffers who attended didn’t pay for it. The supporters and lobbyists who have been trying to influence legislative outcomes since the session began in January covered the tab. And it’s completely legal, as Hunter pointed out, so long as the lobbyists paying the bills report their expenses where everybody can go see them. Ethics rules limit lobbyists from spending more than $500 on entertainment on a particular legislator, but that limit doesn’t apply to food and drink.
The Sunday affair for Calendars was one of several held by the various legislative committees working toward the close of the session next week. For instance, the House Appropriations Committee was meeting across town at Olive and June, another high-end restaurant. The Public Education Committee was at Moonshine, a nice restaurant next to the convention center. Two committees — Agriculture and Livestock, and Culture, Recreation and Tourism — were holding their dinners at Ranch 616, a place on the edge of downtown Austin. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, made the rounds, including a stop at III Forks, where he talked to attendees and left without eating.
"Speaker Straus has stopped by most committee dinners to show his appreciation for members' work this session,” said Jason Embry, a spokesman for Straus. “He briefly attended three committee dinners on Sunday but did not stay for dinner at any of them."
What is unusual about the Calendars dinner — other than costing the equivalent of a new car — is that the restaurant tab got passed around and talked about.
It wasn’t just a dinner; Hunter formally posted it as an official meeting, though he said he took care to commence the eating and drinking after the committee’s official work for the session was complete.
“I can tell you that we had some people there that probably did not have an interest in anything specifically, but wanted to meet people,” Hunter said. “But do people work the calendar? Absolutely.”
Sunday was an important date. Under House rules, it was the deadline to complete the final agenda of bills in the House for the 83rd regular legislative session. That’s the day the committee decided, once and for all, which bills would be eligible for consideration during the last week of the session and which ones would die without a vote from the full House.
The meeting was posted, just like any other legislative committee meeting. Calendars had a meeting posted for 5:45 p.m. Sunday in a Capitol committee room, and another posted for 6:30 p.m. at the restaurant. According to the minutes, they set this week’s bills for consideration at the first meeting.
Not all of the 121 people at the dinner — that number is based on the number of $95 “banquets” on the check — paid for their supper. Beverages ran another $6,580, plus tax and tip. Somebody had a glass of juice for $2.75; elsewhere in the room, the restaurant was serving 24 bottles of pinot noir, 24 bottles of chardonnay, 27 bottles of cabernet and seven bottles of sauvignon blanc, each priced at between $51 and $68. Another three bottles of cabernet — a nicer one, apparently — cost $135 each. That’s on top of a long list of mixed drinks and beers. If you’re keeping count, that’s 85 bottles for 140 people.
The full tab was $18,584.55 and after a 20 percent tip was added on, the total came to $22,241.03.
That’s $183.81 per person, but only 65 guests produced their wallets. They divvied the tab evenly, most of them paying $340.07. A handful varied from that amount, with the smallest tab coming in at $338.12 and the biggest landing at $478.07. Hunter said he didn’t pay and didn’t expect the members of his committee to do so, either.
“I’ve had committee dinners since I’ve been here for seven terms,” Hunter said, speaking in characteristically clipped phrases. “Lobby pays. They follow rules. Everybody knows up front. And we even post it, so we are all in compliance.”