The Lexus of Texas

We pay a lot of attention to how candidates bring money in for their campaign accounts -- but what about how it gets spent? The Houston Chronicle looks at the expenditures of Texas candidates after the election -- how they're using campaign cash to travel in style, eat like kings, and win brownie points via donations to local groups. Ah, campaign cash - the gift that keeps on giving.

The article is good for at least a giggle as the candidates attempt to justify their expenses (you may not be aware, for instance, that it's tantamount to suicide to travel the perilous highway from Austin to San Antonio in anything less than a Lexus). But how does this reframe our discussion of the relationship between campaign donors and candidates? It's one thing to write a check in support of a candidate because you believe in his or her positions, it's quite another to subsidize their BMW rental, first class upgrade, or civic donation (like a gift to a school group, or membership dues at a club). Where's the line between what counts as a personal expense funded by campaign donors and a campaign expense?

 

State law bars politicians from converting campaign donations to personal use, but the definition of a legitimate political expenditure is broad. Though there is nothing illegal about this spending on its face, some campaign-finance reform advocates say it looks improper. "Legislators are living high on campaign dollars," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen.

"You want your legislators to have safe, reliable automobiles, but you question whether they need BMWs or Lincolns," Smith said. "Legislators have a right to use their campaign contributions to be seen in public, but should they be using campaign dollars for posh country clubs?"

 

This hints at a patronage system where wealthy donors in effect underwrite a candidate's lavish lifestyle for an indefinite time frame and for who knows what kind of return. In any event, it is a fine argument for continued, and improved, disclosure of campaign income and expenditures --oh, and a much-needed warning to all you non-Lexus driving Texans, be safe out there!