Commentary: Using Texas taxpayers' money for political ends

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 7, 2012 

Don't be shocked: Texas political figures sometimes use the privileges of their offices, even taxpayer money, to serve political ends outside what they are supposed to focus on.

Stunning, I know, but I have to tell it like it is.

I remember one summer many years ago when I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a friend was working for that year's Democratic presidential nominee. Late one night, my friend went with other campaign workers to the offices of a certain statewide official, a Democrat, so they could do some campaign work on state-owned equipment. You know, it was something important and the campaign didn't have the right equipment, so the official offered his to be used in the dark of night.

I'm sure that wouldn't happen today, because officials now aren't usually so blatant in the abuse of taxpayer money and property.

Today, though, Texans have been billed for more than $3.6 million to provide a security detail for Gov. Rick Perry during his 160-day run for the Republican presidential nomination. The cost is expected to go up once all claims are paid. Perry says he shouldn't have to pay the money because he didn't ask for the security detail.

Taxpayers who want to protect public money have to look for abuses that are even more subtle.

Take Comptroller Susan Combs, an avowed opponent of the federal healthcare changes signed into law by President Barack Obama. Combs issued a report this week titled, "Texas Business Attitudes Toward Federal Health Care Reform."

"Texans have charged my office with following and understanding the trends and events that affect our state's finances and the state economy on which they depend," Combs wrote in a cover letter for the report.

Combs wanted to "better gauge the Texas business community's views on the potential impacts of federal healthcare reform by reaching out to and hearing from the most businesses possible in Texas," the report says. Good idea.

But to do that, her office sent surveys to about 21,000 businesses that are members of the National Federation of Independent Business or the Texas Association of Business, two organizations that staunchly oppose the federal law.

Two-thirds of the 919 businesses that responded to the survey said the law is bad. Really? The only mystery about that is why the other third are paying dues to organizations in which they are such oddballs.

But how does surveying people who mostly can be counted on to oppose the law qualify as "reaching out to and hearing from the most businesses possible in Texas"?

Well, it's "not a scientifically representative sample" of Texas businesses and was never claimed to be, said Lauren Willis, director of communications for Combs. It was "economical" and "cost-efficient."

The headline on the comptroller's news release about the survey declared, "Businesses Express Concern About Federal Health Care Reform in Texas."

A Republican Texas official spends taxpayer money to survey opponents of the Democratic president's signature domestic initiative and discovers those opponents to be opposed.

So much so, a highlighted portion of the study says, that 12.5 percent "have reduced staffing due to healthcare reform." Another way of looking at the data might be to say that the overwhelming majority, 87.5 percent, have not reduced staffing due to healthcare reform. But that doesn't serve the clearly political purpose.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held hearings on key elements of the healthcare law and is expected to rule on its constitutionality this summer. If it survives and Combs does another survey for the revenue estimate she'll give to next year's legislative session, let's hope she does a more reliable, less politically motivated job.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service