October 14, 2015

A Victory in Texas

By Katherine Duncan

Last Monday marked a state-level win for reining in unchecked money in politics: the Texas Ethics Commission now requires that dark money groups disclose their donors, marking a welcome step toward transparency in the murky waters of campaign finance.

The state’s new rule mandates donor disclosure from 501(c)4 nonprofit groups if their communications are distributed within 30 days of an election and are “susceptible to no other reasonable interpretation than to urge the passage or defeat” of a candidate or ballot measure. 

These shadowy players—politically active nonprofits—are not subject to federal disclosure requirements, which has created a secretive financial arms race in which limitless money is funneled into campaigns with no accountability whatsoever.

In Texas, none of these groups is more infamous than Empower Texans, a conservative political advocacy group (also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility) headed by Dallas Morning News’s 2014 “Texan of the Year” finalist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Empower Texans claims that its primary purpose is not to engage in political activity but rather to promote fiscal responsibility in the state—a questionable assertion given that, according to state records, the group has spent nearly $900,000 in direct political expenditures since 2012. The Texas Ethics Commission has taken direct aim at Empower Texans, filing a lawsuit against the group for failing to disclose its donors the same day the disclosure rule passed.  

The new Texas rule supplants a previous, decades-old standard that allowed 501(c)4 groups like Empower Texans to sidestep disclosure so long as they pass a “magic words” test in communication materials—not using overtly political words such as “vote,” “elect,” “against”—that would otherwise qualify as political activity.

Magic, indeed. This narrow guideline was easy enough for these groups to follow, allowing their donors to stay hidden while still circulating content that was clearly advocacy. For example, Empower Texans’ February 2014 ad opposing Republican Texas House member Jim Keffer doesn’t explicitly direct viewers to vote “for” or “against” Keffer, but instead to “fire” him. Such cloaked anonymity creates a shadowy, uneven political playing field rife with wealth and secrecy that leaves voters unaware of who is trying to influence them and why.

Though a shade more subjective than the prior “magic words” test criterion, this new regulation is a small but significant stride toward more honest elections in the state.

More states should follow the Texas Ethics Commission’s lead in cleaning up campaign spending and eradicating any legal loopholes.

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