Lawmaker: Transparency needed on Texas voter ID spending
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A state lawmaker wants to shine a light on how Texas spends millions of taxpayer dollars to educate the public about its controversial voter ID law.
Democratic Rep. Justin Rodriguez is proposing legislation that for the first time in Texas calls for transparency of spending for voter education campaigns by requiring the Texas Secretary of State’s office to produce data showing results after each general election.
The state’s chief elections office has contracted with public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to produce voter ID publicity efforts, but has refused to disclose where it placed television and radio spots as part of a $2.5 million campaign, nor reveal the names of roughly 1,800 community groups that partnered with the state for the 2016 elections.
Rodriguez, a Democrat from San Antonio and member of the House budget writing committee, says Texas officials shouldn’t be allowed to hide information about an important public education campaign_especially given widespread confusion over changes to the Texas law leading up to November’s election.
“These are public dollars,” said Rodriguez, who is planning to file his bill Wednesday. “I hate that this has kind of become an adversarial deal with the secretary of state’s office, but we want to make sure that money is being spent correctly.”
A spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, did not return a request for comment but the office has previously said the materials were not released because of an ongoing voter ID lawsuit. Several top House Republicans authoring a proposal to revise to the current voter ID law also declined to comment, also citing the pending litigation.
Since 2013, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act and allowed the Texas measure to go into effect, the state has spent close to $5 million on education programs for its voter ID law with relatively no scrutiny from lawmakers. About half that total was spent on the 2016 presidential elections after a federal court last year forced Texas to water down its law because the court said it discriminates against minorities.
Rodriguez’s proposal, according to a draft copy, would require Texas to produce detailed reports related to voter education programs. That includes disclosing markets and spending levels for advertising buys, the names of organizations promulgating state materials and the estimated number of voters reached, among other things.
The snafu over disclosure of the materials started last year when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal judge overseeing the ongoing voter ID lawsuit to seal documents listing proposed ad buy markets and community groups, arguing they contained “proprietary” or “confidential” information provided by Burson-Marsteller.
Months later, Paxton’s office ruled against a Texas newspaper seeking access to the documents through the state’s open records law, allowing details of how Texas spent a big chunk of the $2.5 million to remain secret.