Last February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivered his first State of the State and made some promising proclamations. “It’s time for property owners – not government – to truly own their property,” he stated. He also made ethics reforms pledges, “prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and more disclosure of campaign finance information.”
Abbott’s commitment to giving citizens a real say in their property uses and taking on legislative influence-peddling couldn’t have come at a better time for the people of Denton, Texas. In November of 2014, the Dentonians voted overwhelmingly to protect their property, their children and their communities from the many adverse impacts of fracking, an irresponsible and largely unregulated method of gas extraction. Abbott’s promises presumably meant that under his watch, government would never be allowed to strip away the democratic rights of Denton’s local citizens at the behest of industry.
But then in May Abbott signed into law HB40, a bill reportedly scripted by the oil and gas industry, thereby stripping away the property and local voting rights of the citizens of the city of Denton and every other town and city in Texas. Industry’s lawyers wasted no time running into court to bully Denton’s City Council into dropping its ban under the threat of attorney’s fees.
Abbott, like so many others who take up the mantle of political life in Texas and elsewhere quickly embraced the “talk is cheap, but campaigns are expensive” mindset that permeates our political system – his oil and gas buddies had funded his gubernatorial election to the tune of over $1.5 million, more than any industry in the state.
If Abbott is so concerned with ethics reform, perhaps he needs to start with himself.
Of course, there are plenty of other places for him to start, too. One of the primary Republican sponsors of HB40, Senator Troy Fraser, has received $215,850 in campaign contributions from oil and gas. The other Republican primary sponsors of HB40, Representatives Drew Darby, James Keefer and Phil King, reaped benefits in the amounts of $143,865, $340,183 and $113,000 respectively from the industry.
Political sellout in Texas, though, is not a partisan problem; the Democratic primary sponsors of HB40, Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Rep. Rene Oliviera also feed from the oil and gas trough; they’re just satisfied with much smaller portions. Thompson and Oliviera only got a paltry $55,401 and $69,600 in campaign money from the industry.
It gets even uglier: When Denton passed its fracking ban, it was sued by two entities, one of which was the Texas Oil and Gas Association, or TxOGA. It was one of TxOGA’s lawyers who reportedly helped write HB40. In 2014, TxOGA wrote Abbott a check for $30,000 to add to the $70,000 they’ve given him over the years. That same year, TxOGA gave Darby, who introduced HB40, $2,500, while giving bill sponsor Fraser $20,000 in 2012. Keffer, another bill sponsor, has been paid $28,500 by TxOGA over past years. TxOGA has also given money to both Thompson and Oliviera in past years. You can only imagine what TxOGA’s “contributions” to each of these politicians will be in 2015.
This goes beyond a company giving money to a candidate of its choice – this is an active litigant in court giving money to a group of legislators to pass a bill that they need to win the case, while bankrolling the governor who needs to sign the bill even though doing so directly conflicts with the promises he made to his own constituents.
The hypocrisy is stunning. The only winners in this whole mess are the oil and gas industry. But the citizens of Denton and grassroots activists will continue to fight the undue influence the industry has over democracy in Texas.