A visit to the State House

Last week Thursday, I went to the State House to testify on a bill.
I’m on the board of Campaigns for People, a group that advocates for Campaign finance reform in Texas, and EFF-Austin, a group that advocates for civil liberties related to electronic technology.
There was a bill up for debate in the House to close a loophole in the law on electronic campaign filing.
In Texas, candidates with campaigns of more than $20,000 in contributions are expected to file electronically. But there’s a loophole — candidates can claim an exemption if they don’t use a computer.
The loophole is being abused badly. A candidate with a recent Harvard Law degree claimed the exemption. Several statewide campaigns with over $200,000 in contributions claimed the exemption.
They asked me to come testify at the elections committee hearing. I had never done this before. The hearing room was in the basement of the state house. The inside of the building is clean and looks newly and expensively renovated. There is a large, spiral staircase (in addition to the elevators), spacious halls, rooms with large wooden doors. The halls are full of people walking purposefully.
You show up at the hearing room. The committee is in a row of chairs at the front, with a court reporter taking notes (or whatever they do with current technology). The room is full of politicians, lobbyists, citizens on benches. Young aides flit up and back, carrying slips of paper to the representatives. The committee chair introduces the bill in a ritualistic monotone. Witnesses are called by name, come up to a witness podium and talk for 2-5 minutes. Some simply put down their name in favor or against the bill, but don’t talk. At times, the committee members ask questions of the witnesses.
At the end of the debate period, the committee members share some nearly-telepathic communication about what to do. They then vote to pass, defer consideration, or (what’s the opposite of pass?) the bill. The chair calls the role in ritual monotone. Most of the time, apparently, they hear testimony, defer to the next meeting, and vote at the next meeting.
I spoke after Fred Lewis, the Campaigns for People director. Fred gave many examples of how the loophole was being abused. I talked about how it was reasonable to expect candidates to have internet access; how important it was for citizens to have campaign contribution data to analyze before the election; and the value of bringing the Texas campaign system up to the high standard set by other state egovernment initiatives.
The bill that I testified for turned out to be the anticlimax of the day.
The previous bill on the schedule sparked a contentious debate, fueled by Dallas ethnic politics. That bill proposed that people who help voters fill out absentee ballots sign their names, and made it a misdemeanor or felony for various aspects of co-ercing someone to vote against their will.
The reason for the proposal was allegations of abuse, in which aggressive campaign workers would intimidate elderly and infirm voters. One of the members of the committee, an African American woman, had two staffers indicted for election fraud, for their assertive practices with absentee voting (the charges were dismissed).
The white legislator proposing the bill gave a folksy talk, quoting “the famous philosopher, Popeye”, and highlighting the penalties for the “four nasties”, like helping someone vote without their consent, and mailing the ballot without consent.
Two of the African American committee members gave impassioned speeches about the way that the black community cares for its elderly and sick members, unlike white folk. They linked the issue to the voting rights act, efforts to end the poll tax, and other struggles to get black people the right to vote. They noted that the election commission investigated allegations in the African American South Dallas community, and didn’t head up to North Dallas to investigate election practices among white people.
By the time Bill 999 came up, it was 5:30pm. Most of the people in the audience, including folks who came to testify on 999 had left. Fred Lewis talked, I talked, and a member of the Ethics commission talked briefly about the system. The bill was deferred for a vote next week. Fred believes it will pass.
The CFP folks are asking me back to testify for the Senate version of the bill next week.

One thought on “A visit to the State House”

  1. Thanks for posting the first-person account. The sausage-making process can be fascinating.
    Also, thanks for taking the time to testify in favor of something so good.

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