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Texas Ethics Commission Regulates State Campaign Finance Rules, for Now

Lately, we have been hearing a lot about campaign finance. Any individual that chooses to run for an elected public office in Texas has election and finance laws to follow. We are about 10 weeks away from election day on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, and we know who our Texan candidates are.

Texans will be (if not already) subjected to canvassing and inundated by paid public announcements. Public airtime is costly. The closer we get, you can’t avoid the radio commercials, television commercials, paper flyers in the mail, and even ads seen when you surf the net on your favorite websites. This expense and many others come from campaign finances.

The Texas Ethics Commission has published a brochure titled “Campaign Finance Guide for Candidates and Officeholders Who File with Local Filing Authorities” outlining legal requirements. This guide provides a summary of reporting requirements and other regulations set out in the Texas Election Code, and in the rules adopted by the Texas Ethics Commission. This particular guide applies to candidates in most local offices in Texas.

Candidates running for judge positions must comply with the “Campaign Finance Guide for Judicial Candidates and Officeholders, and the Political Advertising Guide,” and then, of course, there is for state candidates, “A Guide For All Elected and Appointed State Officers, Members of the Boards Of River Authorities, Executive Heads of State Agencies, and State Political Party Chairs.”

The Texas Ethics Commission has published several guides and brochures that ideally guide public officials, but voters could benefit from learning about the numerous filing requirements for public elected officials that include not only rules regarding campaign finance but ethics, and conflicts of interest disclosures. You can read to your heart’s delight about these issues on the commission’s website.

On November 5, 1991, Texas voters approved an amendment that added Article III, Section 24a, to the Texas Constitution, which created the Texas Ethics Commission. Later, the Texas legislature enacted law enabling the Ethics Commission with the authority to enforce laws regarding political contributions and expenditures, political advertising, lobbyist activities and elected officials’ standards of conduct and conflicts of interest. The commission can levy fines against officials who break ethics rules. Elected leaders can also ask the commission to issue opinions on various state laws and regulations.

A state appeals court on August 3, 2018 reinstated a lawsuit filed in 2015 by “Empower Texans,” a prominent conservative advocacy group, that seeks to strip the Texas Ethics Commission of its power to regulate campaigns and political donations. The credo on their website is “advance liberty in the Lone Star State,” and it also asserts that “legislators should answer to the people, not the corrupt cronies in Austin.”

The motto of the Texas Ethics Commission is: “Promoting Public Confidence in Government.”

Without public finance law, will the power and dollars of the political action committees (PACs) and corporate lobbyists steamroll the power of our vote with their money? In the 1907 State of the Union Address, President Theodore Roosevelt stated: “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Public financing of elections, he believed, would ensure that no particular donor has an outsized influence on the outcome of any election.

Candidates who opt not to use public funds can solicit contributions from individuals, PACs, unions, parties, and corporations, without having to abide by state spending limits. In the U.S., 14 states provide some form of public financing option for campaigns. Each plan requires the candidate to accept public money for his or her campaign in exchange for a promise to limit both how much the candidate spends on the election, and how much they receive in donations from any one group or individual.

Texas is not one of the 14 public fund finance states, but at least for the moment we do have an Ethics Commission.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal and governmental law practice can be found here.

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