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Without competitive primaries, some Texas politicians choose to donate to their colleagues

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton are all heavy favorites to win their Republican primary races next week. Texas law allows them to give their campaign funds to other politicians in more precarious positions.

Left to right: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Attorney General Ken Paxton.


Welcome to The Texas Tribune's "Texplainer" series, where we answer questions from readers like you. 

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Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Dena Jackson. 

Hey, Texplainer: Does Texas law allow elected officials to give their campaign donations to other candidates? 

Yes, it does. And this year, elected officials are doing it a lot. 

Hugh Brady, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, put it simply: Candidates can take money from pretty much anyone they want — and they can give that money to pretty much any candidate they want. 

One of the few stipulations is that contributions from individuals to federal candidates are limited to $2,700 per election by the Federal Elections Commission. Texas, meanwhile, doesn’t have contribution limits for most offices, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

We’ve seen plenty of candidate-to-candidate contributions ahead of Tuesday's primary elections. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has amassed a $43.3 million war chest for 2018, is free of serious primary opposition and has used some of his money to fight to unseat fellow Republicans in the Texas House whom he has clashed with. About $161,000, for example, went to ads opposing Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign finance reports show several in-kind contributions to fellow Republicans running for state Senate seats, including one to state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, who is challenging Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, in the Senate District 30 primary.

And Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s political campaign pledged $2 million to help his wife, Angela, in her bid for the state Senate. Paxton also loaned his wife's campaign $500,000.

“Usually if you’re a Democrat, the Democrats will give you money, and usually if you’re a Republican, the Republicans will give you money,” Brady said. “But it’s usually an incumbent protection thing [rather than] an offensive use.” 

Then, there’s the question of what happens when a lawmaker stops serving in the Legislature but still has thousands — or millions — of campaign dollars.

One common move is to become a lobbyist and use that money for campaign contributions. A 2017 report from Texans for Public Justice, a campaign finance watchdog group, said five members who left the Texas Legislature that year became lobbyists within four months of leaving.

“A couple of people have gone into the lobby in recent years with pretty decent-sized war chests,” said Craig McDonald, the group's director. 

This practice will cease in 2019, however. A House bill signed by Abbott during the previous legislative session will ban lawmakers who leave the Legislature and become registered lobbyists from giving their campaign funds to another candidate, officeholder or political committee. The measure will take effect Jan. 8, 2019. 

Instead of giving the money to another lawmaker, McDonald said, former lawmakers who become lobbyists can give their campaign money back to their donors or to a charity. 

The bottom line: Texas law does allow elected officials to give their campaign donations to other candidates — and there are barely any restrictions on doing so. Starting next year, however, former lawmakers who become registered lobbyists won’t be able to give any of their campaign contributions to candidates, officeholders or political committees.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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