AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas lawmakers, fresh off hard-fought elections in November, are dashing to refill campaign accounts before a moratorium on fundraising kicks in on Dec. 12.
More than 40 returning or recently-elected state lawmakers are holding in-person fundraising events in Austin this week, according to a list compiled by a lobbying group. The fundraisers come as Texas continues to record thousands of new coronavirus cases, and dozens of deaths, each day.
“(Lawmakers) want to top off their gas tanks and this is where they’re doing it,” said veteran lobbyist Bill Miller, who planned to attend at least one of the events at the Austin Club on Tuesday. “The Austin Club is the place to get gassed up.”
The events are primarily taking place at the Austin Club and in the lobby at 919 Congress and are typical of the weeks leading up to the legislative session. State lawmakers are barred from raising campaign funds during the period beginning one month before the legislative session and continuing through the month after it concludes.
Austin-Travis County is currently in Stage 4 of its COVID-19 risk assessment, which advises against gatherings of more than 10 people.
A manager for the Austin Club said masks are required during the events and that attendees are encouraged to socially distance. Capacity will not be capped, though the manager assured KXAN that the Austin Club has plenty of space to properly distance guests.
A representative for Moore Associates, which manages the Capitol Center at 919 Congress, said individual tenants are responsible for keeping guests safe. During a fundraising reception at the Lobby at 919 Congress Tuesday afternoon, KXAN observed masked attendees and a group that appeared to be smaller than 10 people.
Republicans and Democrats hold in-person fundraisers
The list of lawmakers holding in-person fundraising events in Austin this week includes both Democrats and Republicans.
Republican state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Democrat state Rep. Senfronia Thompson had dueling events planned at the Austin Club on Tuesday afternoon.
Presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, is participating in an in-person fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin on Wednesday.
Some lawmakers, like Democrat state Rep. John Bucy of Cedar Park, are hosting outdoor fundraisers this week. Bucy’s event is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on the patio at Ranch 616. Guests will be socially distanced and masks will be required, according to a campaign official.
State Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, opted for a virtual fundraiser, knowing he likely won’t pull in the same amount of money as an in-person event.
“There are rules for those that are influential and powerful and wealthy, and then there are rules for everyone else,” Talarico told KXAN. “I refuse to jeopardize the health of our community or set a bad example just to get a few more campaign checks.”
‘The gravy train doesn’t stop’
Brandon Rottinghaus, an author and political science professor at the University of Houston, isn’t surprised to see returning and incoming lawmakers fundraising in the same ways they have in the past.
Texas legislators receive a salary of $7,200 per year for their part-time service, which is far-exceeded by living expenses in Austin for the 140-day legislative session.
Lawmakers often subsidize their official offices using campaign funds.
“Lawmakers know that there is a tremendous arms race in terms of the amount of money you need to raise to be able to compete in future elections, so they’ve got to put more hay in the barn when they can,” Rottinghaus told KXAN. “The gravy train doesn’t stop.”
KXAN is working to confirm details of the fundraisers, and whether public health guidelines are being observed.