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Analysis: Candid Cameras at a Critical Moment in the Legislative Session

Without showing their hand, conservatives outside of government have captured the attention of every nervous conservative in the Legislature at exactly the right time.

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This business about folks with lapel cameras patrolling the state Capitol times out pretty well for activists looking to influence lawmakers. Without showing their hand, conservatives outside of government have captured the attention of every nervous conservative in the Legislature at exactly the right time.

On top of the looming legislative deadlines, the Capitol is in a state of agitation (even if the rest of the state is not) about a shadowy band of political pranksters — or more charitably, operatives — who have been walking up to lawmakers and lobbyists for the last several weeks, asking them about everything from their positions on bills to their sleeping arrangements and mating rituals to their travel expenses.

That leaves everyone somewhere on the spectrum between “OMG, tell me more” and “OMG, I’m going to be sick.”

Some of the folks behind this little experiment say they have amassed some 800 hours of recordings — their field agents are wired for video and audio — and claim that some of it is newsworthy.

Why worry? It depends first on whether you were taped saying something dumb to a stranger who walked up in the Capitol and peppered you with questions. That’s not as far out as it might sound: Strangers asking one another provocative questions is a pretty good description of a typical day in state government.

The impact of any of this depends on whether and how the material gets to the public, if it gets into the public sphere at all. Will it be as damning as promised? Will it be edited fairly? Will it be used as straightforward documentary information assembled by self-styled citizen journalists, or are the ends political in nature, with campaigns and elections in mind?

The timing of the first revelation — that this is happening and might have some potential for scandal — is suspicious and perhaps fortuitous.

There are three weeks left in the session. Many of the most important votes — those with the most consequence and the highest odds of showing up as negatives or positives in a campaign mailer — are still ahead. The list includes the budget, with all of its goodies and poison pills (the spending they like and the spending they do not like); taxes, which could include cuts to business, sales or property taxes and could be big enough for taxpayers to notice; handguns, carried openly, and/or while concealed on state college campuses; state funding for pre-kindergarten programs; decriminalization of marijuana; and tightening of the laws governing the ethics of officeholders. There are hundreds of other issues and proposals.

And lawmakers who are feeling the heat of mounting deadlines can add this new noise about their moral, ethical and political behavior to their anxieties.

If the deployment of those recordings is political, does today’s voting behavior by a particular lawmaker have any influence over what gets released?

The group gathering the information — a nonprofit called the American Phoenix Foundation — has given a copy of it to Breitbart Texas, a conservative news organization. That outlet is going over the recordings and its managing director, Brandon Darby, told The Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford that it won’t release any of it while the Legislature is in session.

“I don’t really think that something like this coming out during the ending of the legislative session is helpful to the state at all,” Darby said.

The hunter-gatherers, meanwhile, are still at work, following and taping lawmakers. And now that they have been outed as a result of inquiries started by the people they were chasing and by news stories that came later, their work has become a little harder. Everybody at the Capitol is on alert — or, if you prefer, their best behavior — and has some idea of whom to avoid.

That might help them steer clear of trouble for the rest of the session, but it doesn’t erase the apprehension about what has already been recorded. They were already worried about the scorecards prepared by various interest groups for use in primary and general elections.

Now there’s another kind of scorecard out there.

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