If you follow the money, school vouchers are important to the governor’s main benefactors: billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks and a special interest group called “ALEC.” Our new report, “ALEC-tioneering: Unmasking Money in Texas Politics,” sheds light on how big monied special interests have influenced public policy outcomes in our state using an all too predictable rinse-and-repeat formula. Most recently, these same donors helped Attorney General Ken Paxton escape 16 charges in his impeachment trial.
You might have just started seeing their names in the news, but Dunn and Wilks have been lurking in the shadows, orchestrating Texas politics for more than a decade. They operate by standing up organizations with names that sound harmless enough. Names like “Defend Texas Liberty” and “Empower Texans.” Who opposes liberty or Texans? That’s the point — the names are intentionally created to hide their identities and their partisan agenda.
If you’ve lived in Texas long enough, you’ve seen this movie before — and it doesn’t end well for voters. Dunn and Wilks are just the most recent players in the game. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was James Leininger, a San Antonio physician and business magnate who gave or loaned $11.9 million to install candidates who would push through his political will. Like Dunn and Wilks, Leininger was also focused on school vouchers.
And they’re not operating alone. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, works to connect big money donors with leaders in states across the country, with the goal of passing partisan legislation that puts corporate profits ahead of the people’s interests. For years, Common Cause has worked to shed light on this dark money group and expose their plan to manipulate our democracy and buy our leaders.
Their latest target in Texas is our public schools. ALEC, with the help of Leininger, Dunn and Wilks, wants to privatize our education, and that’s likely why Abbott is once again forcing the school voucher issue even after state lawmakers rejected him.
Don’t misunderstand us — the problem is not that some may want to influence public policy with political contributions. The problem is that mega donors such as Dunn and Wilks can simply buy our state lawmakers to do their bidding and outweigh the votes and contributions of everyday Texans. This pay-to-play dynamic has created a damaging, unbalanced political system where legislators are more accountable to political donors than to their constituents.
A strong and thriving democracy is one where everyone can be heard — young or old, blue collar or white collar, Republican or Democratic. In our report, Common Cause Texas proposes four solutions to reign in the influence of dark money and help restore faith in our government to work for the people — not just its biggest donors.
First, we must strengthen the state Ethics Commission, providing it with adequate staff and real teeth — not just investigative powers but stronger enforcement powers too — to truly hold leaders accountable.
Second, we must require greater and more timely disclosure of campaign contributions, so the public understands who is trying to influence our views and our votes.
Third, some level of limits on campaign spending is long overdue. Texas is just one of 11 states in the nation without any limits on how much money one person can give to a political candidate.
And finally, if we’re really serious about breaking Big Money’s grip on our politics, we need to consider public financing of campaigns. With candidates less focused on securing donors who can write bigger checks, they can focus their time on talking with voters. Once in office, they won’t be beholden to any one donor or special interest.
It’s time to get off this merry-go-round. It’s time we get our house in order and implement commonsense reforms to hold our leaders accountable to voter interests — not special interests.
Katya Ehresman is Voting Rights program manager of Common Cause Texas, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.
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