Who is footing bill for Texas Democrats’ weekslong exodus to block the voting bill?

Published 9:34 am Thursday, July 15, 2021

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As Texas House Democrats settle in for a potentially weekslong stay in the nation’s capital, one question is becoming increasingly relevant: Who’s footing the bill?

The House Democratic caucus paid for the two private jets that flew members to Washington, D.C., on Monday, according to the caucus’ executive director, Phillip Martin, who did not provide a price tag for the flights. Otherwise, the caucus has so far split costs like meals, lodging and other transportation with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, as well as the campaign accounts of Reps. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio.

Turner chairs the Democratic caucus.

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But with over 50 House Democrats in Washington — along with 12 paid staff — the costs are quickly mounting and the existing funds are not unlimited. Democrats have started making fundraising pitches to help finance their decampment that allows them to keep blocking the passage of GOP voting legislation in Texas.

Martinez Fischer has been soliciting donations by emphasizing that Democrats are spending $10,000 a day for hotels and meals.

The lawmakers have so far been staying at the Washington Plaza Hotel, where the cheapest room Wednesday night cost $189, according to its website.

Turner expressed confidence Wednesday that his contingent would have the finances to ride out the duration of the special session.

“Our commitment in the House Democratic Caucus is that we’re going to stay out until this session is over to kill this bill,” Turner said during a news conference. Asked what would happen if money dries up, Turner responded, “We’re not worried about it.”

The confidence comes as Republicans blast the Democrats for fleeing the state while still getting paid by taxpayers. Gov. Greg Abbott has ripped the Democrats for going on a “taxpayer-funded junket” that could last weeks, and multiple GOP lawmakers have filed bills seeking to cut off their pay, though such legislation cannot be voted on without a quorum.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, stood outside the House chamber displaying a handwritten poster that claimed the Democrats who left the state were costing taxpayers $43,330 a day.

Under the Texas Constitution, lawmakers earn a salary of $600 per month, as well as a per diem for every day they are in session that is currently established at $221 per day. On Wednesday, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, asked the quorum-breaking Democrats to return the per diem “immediately upon receipt.”

One of the Democrats who left, Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, does not plan to accept the per diem while out of the state and has been working since Monday to file the appropriate paperwork, according to her office. Turner said that the per diems “are paid out at the end of the month … and I anticipate members are gonna decline them.”

Without the per diem and with dwindling caucus funds, the Democrats will increasingly have to look to other sources to keep them in Washington.

So far, Beto O’Rourke has taken the lead on outside fundraising. The former presidential candidate, El Paso congressman and 2018 U.S. Senate nominee has used his Powered by People group to raise over $500,000 for the quorum-busting Democrats in just two days, according to his team. There have been over 15,000 contributions, with an average individual donation of $36.

“100% of what we raise will go to support them for as long as they need and for whatever it takes to win this fight,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

As of Wednesday, the House Democratic Caucus had likely covered the biggest part of the bill so far with the airfare expense. While some House Republicans publicly alleged the planes were donated by an out-of-state millionaire, Martin, the caucus executive director, said they were paid for by existing caucus funds and not arranged for by any particular donor or donors.

Even with the caucus money, Turner said members “are incurring costs out of pocket, absolutely.”

How much money the caucus had to spend going into the trip is unclear. Under state law, legislative caucuses only report to the Texas Ethics Commission every six months, and when they do, they do not have to disclose how much cash on hand they have, unlike the requirement for campaigns.

Caucuses are similar to campaigns, though, in that they can raise and spend unlimited amounts.

The next TEC report for the House Democratic Caucus is due Thursday, though it only covers the six-month period through June 30, likely before the caucus spent anything related to the quorum break. On the caucus’s previous filing, covering the second half of 2020, it reported $372,875 in contributions and $149,537 in expenses, though those figures were higher than usual because the period included the November election.

​​The last time Democratic lawmakers left the state in protest was in 2003, when senators fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for 46 days, objecting to redistricting legislation. Harold Cook, who staffed the senators for the quorum break, said he recalls that they paid for their hotel rooms out of their own campaign accounts and that the caucus likely covered meals.

But, Cook noted, that quorum bust featured only 11 senators — versus the over 50 House members who are currently in Washington — and senators often have more campaign money saved up because they represent larger areas. Still, he said the House members are “probably fine for now” given the amount of national attention they have attracted and the fundraising that comes with it.

“Honestly, I don’t remember money ever being a problem for the Senate Democrats because the money just came flying in,” Cook said. “Even before any efforts were made to raise money, it just started spontaneously coming in.”

By Patrick Svitek with contributions from Abby Livingston and Farah Eltohamy of The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.