As a state dominated by the oil and gas industry and other large corporations, Texas has generated little excitement about government reforms. That’s changing, and much of the credit goes to the bright light that a public interest group, Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), has focused on the state’s judiciary, legislature and the governor’s office.
Organized just four years ago by Craig McDonald, TPJ’s five-person staff has been releasing a veritable blizzard of reports on everything from corporate influence in Texas elections to how big money buys access to the Texas Supreme Court.
Last April, McDonald’s organization released a report entitled “Pay to Play” revealing that lawyers and parties to court cases who contributed to the elections of state Supreme Court Justices were four times more likely to have their cases accepted by the court. Cris Feldman, staff attorney for TPJ, says “even when Justices don’t face an opponent they still raise money hand over fist and most of that money comes from those with cases on the docket.”
The report received major attention in the Texas and national media and generated public debate throughout the state. TPJ also testified on the issue before a committee of the American Bar Association which has now issued its own report calling for tax-funded elections in states where the judiciary is elected.
A separate report produced by Texans for Public Justice took a major swipe at another practice of the Supreme Court — allowing its judicial clerks to take “hiring bonuses” from law firms before they start their
one-year clerkship at the court. TPJ’s report showed that four big law firms hired 33 of the 76 clerks and “accounted for 70 percent of the conflicts of interest at the court.” These were Baker Botts, Vinson and Elkins, Fulbright and Jaworski and Bracewell and Patterson.
With the TPJ report gaining lots of publicity and editorial support in the state, the Texas Ethics Commission is expected to adopt an advisory opinion against the law firm subsidies — dubbed “clerk perks” by the TPJ
Last fall, TPJ released a devastating report that revealed that Texas as lagging behind most of the nation on a wide range of socio-economic indicators that measure the quality of life.
“Texas has a resilient character and natural beauty that have survived massive abuses by its government and industry,” the report said. “Still the quality of life in Texas compares poorly with the rest of the nation. Texas leads the nation in hazardous waste and air pollution, falls behind most every state in health care access, and treats its poor as if it was a third world country.”
TPJ regularly exposes the tactics of the army of special interest lobbyists who descend on the State Capitol and details how these lobbying groups harm consumers, the environment and workers.
“Legislators are rubbing shoulders with 1,579 lobbyists, almost all of whom hustle for business interests,” McDonald said in 1999 report entitled Austin’s Oldest Profession: Texas Top Lobby Clients and Those Who Service Them. “While our legislative process is dominated by corporate interests, there is virtually no counterbalancing lobby to represent Bubba. Nowhere on the list of Texas’ biggest lobby spenders will you find a single group dedicated to the interests of consumers, the environment or human services. No wonder these citizen interestsrepeatedly get steam rolled in Austin.”
That same year, TPJ released a report on the Texas Chemical Council, a trade association of chemical companies operating in Texas. The report’s conclusion: “Texas Council Members dump 187 million pounds of toxins in Texas (EPA data 1996) and up to $10 million into state politics.” The report listed then Governor George W. Bush as the “Number One Recipient of Texas Toxic Cash.”
“Pollution and political clout are closely linked in Texas,” McDonald says. “The Texas Chemical Council is a prime example of how a special-interest group harnesses big money in order to dump on average
Texas citizens. Cleaning up state politics is the first step towards cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
Texans for Public Justice (http://www.tpj.org) is doing a magnificent job with limited resources. It is up against some of the biggest corporate interests in the nation and some of the toughest lobbying organizations and law firms to ever occupy a state capital. The successes of TPJ should be a source of encouragement to other citizen organizations around the nation that are seeking social and economic justice against great odds. Interested in learning more about how TPJ operates as a public watchdog in Texas? Write: Texans for Public
Justice, 609 West 18th Street, Suite E, Austin, Texas 78701.