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TX Rep. Merritt's Motion Fails to Bring Campaign Reform Bill to House Floor

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

Efforts today to bring a major campaign ethics bill to the House floor by bypassing committee action played out like a chain reaction pileup on a busy interstate highway.

Rep. Tommy Merritt's (R-Longview) motion to call the bill to the House floor was rebuffed by Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin).

Then followed a pow-wow at the Speaker's dais, calm but firm remarks by Merritt in favor of the motion, less than calm remarks by Keel in response, a failed vote on the motion, and a personal privilege speech by a slightly less-than-innocent bystander, Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco).

HB 1348, which would lasso in the use of corporate and union campaign donations during elections, has been languishing in the House Elections Committee. The bill, originally co-authored by 93 members of the House, was dying a slow and painful death as deadlines for getting bills to the House floor approach.

In addition to reinforcing the state's ban on such monies being used in political campaigns, the bill also would prohibit anonymous funds being used in campaigns during the last 60 days before an election.

In making his motion, Merritt pointed out that his opponent used corporate money in a special election against him and was "very boastful" about that funding, reportedly saying in his view it was legal. Merritt told his fellow House members that allowing such election tactics and spending millions of dollars in anonymous campaign ads is "not ethical." He said they should demand "full disclosure of anyone who wants to take part in an election in Texas."

Merritt said the bill would ensure "a fair campaign."

Bill author Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) admitted that the attempt to call the bill to the House floor is an "unusual tactic," but added that this late in the session he was afraid it would not get out of committee or would go to Calendars and never be seen again. "This is probably going to be the only time you'll see it," he said. Noting corporate contributions are supposed to be used only for administrative purposes, Eiland warned his fellow members that what happened during Merritt's campaign is "going to happen to you and me if we don't stop it."

Keel responded with rapid-fire commentary, asking if the effort to bring the bill to the floor was a "genuine desire to advance this ethics legislation" or if the bill was being used "as a tool to take shots at a member of the House."

"You do the math," said Keel. He said if the motion were passed it would only require the committee chair to send the bill to Calendars. "You better believe that when you thwart the committee process, that the chair is not going to advance that bill."

Keel accused Dunnam of being the ramrod for today's action as something done "in diligent fashion," and said Dunnam had never even talked to him about the bill, although Keel was one of the co-sponsors.

"If you want to talk about me, why don't you talk about me - to me?" asked Dunnam from the back microphone.

"I am going to talk about you," responded Keel, who accused Dunnam of getting what he wanted from the maneuver - bad press coverage against a member of the House. Speaker Tom Craddick is part of the grand jury inquiry into campaign contributions during the 2002 House races that has already led to indictments of three persons involved in PAC that reportedly made contributions from corporate donors in some of those races.

"Good job, Mr. Dunnam," said an angry Keel. "Once again your actions reflect nicely on the House." Although the Travis County District Attorney has said he is looking at "everybody and every political entity" as part of his investigation, said Keel, Dunnam succeeded in "getting a partisan shot at the Speaker."

Keel said when he signed on as a co-author of the bill, he did not believe it would be used for "political posturing." He said such tactics "make this and other measures that are worthy have an uphill battle to get passed." He said approving Merritt's motion would "drive a stake through the heart of this bill" and guarantee its death.

His claim that Merritt offered the motion "on behalf of Mr. Dunnam" drew comments from Merritt that he had not been asked to offer the motion.

At that point, Keel asked that the back microphone be turned off so he would not be interrupted during the remainder of his remarks.

"There's never been a Calendars chair that would advance it under this partisan motion," continued Keel. He pleaded with Democratic members of the House, telling them that he would be voting against the motion even if it were someone from the Democratic Party who had been "victimized by someone from my party."

The motion to suspend the rules to set the bill as a special order failed by a 36-95 vote.

Moments later, Dunnam rose for a personal privilege speech, taking offense to Keel's remarks. He said he has worked hard this session to make sure that the "tone and tenor" of this session were different from that of the previous session, which was marred by nine-acre wars over redistricting that ended up spreading to two other states.

The Waco Democrat said the current session has had an "air of civility" that had members working toward good policy regardless of disagreements "above the personal fray."

Dunnam said he had not even talked to Merritt today, and probably not yesterday either and thus did not ask him to offer the motion. "Mr. Merritt was subjected in a campaign to what I hope we all agree is improper use of money to get votes." He decried the "personal nature" of Keel's remarks in his "pre-written speech."

"I respect his opinion on issues, but the highest priority of this session should be ethics."

With 93 members of the House signing on as co-authors of the bill, Dunnam said he hoped the legislation would pass this session to reinforce the state's ban on the practice of using corporate donations for campaigns, as well as eliminate anonymous ads late in a campaign.

Saying he was told yesterday that the bill would be voted out next Wednesday, Dunnam said that would be the 114th day of the session. "And bills out that day don't make it," he said.

Dunnam said the procedure sought by Merritt was the same one used by Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) regarding redistricting legislation during the Second Called Session of the 78th Legislature. He said the bill was filed, bypassed committee and bypassed Calendars in a parliamentary maneuver. "If it was important enough to bring redistricting past all those procedures and all those safeguards of the committee, I thought it was important enough to do with ethics, because I thought ethics was more important than redistricting."