“Political clout can be subtle”

By R.G. Ratcliffe   – Houston Chronicle
Submitted by Paul Jimenez

AUSTIN — Advocacy groups on the left and the right rarely get the attention of major political committees and business associations, but these issue-based organizations are spending millions of dollars to influence public policy at the state Capitol.

Most don’t have political committees that finance candidates. Many don’t have lobbyists working the Capitol hallways. Instead, these groups try to sway the minds of voters and policymakers through statistical reports, analyses and databases.

Most of the groups’ funding sources are secret, except for public foundations that may donate money.

Their causes range from pushing environmental protection to clean coal technology; from putting restrictions on civil lawsuits to fighting for a justice system that punishes corporate wrongdoers; from shrinking government for lower taxes to pressing for additional government spending on education and social services.

Some of the best-known groups on the left include Environmental Defense, Public Citizen, the Texas Freedom Network, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texans for Public Justice.

Some of the better-known on the right include the Free Market Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Empower Texans and Americans for Prosperity.

Here is a sampling of some of the advocacy organizations, their publicly disclosed foundation funding and how they operate:

The Texas Freedom Network was founded by Gov. Ann Richards’ daughter, Cecile, in 1995 to counter the growing influence of the religious right in Texas.

The Freedom Network raised almost $1 million in 2006. The biggest donors were Dallas oilman Leland Fikes and his wife, Amy. Their family foundation gave the network $200,000 in 2006. Since 1999, Fikes’ foundation has donated a total of $1.2 million to the group.

Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said her group has been effective in helping block private school voucher legislation and in keeping creationism out of public school textbooks. Miller said the network’s effectiveness comes from having grass-roots membership across the state.

Another grass-roots organization, the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, advocates free markets and smaller government. The national organization was launched with money from the Koch family of Kansas. National Chairman David Koch was the Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee in 1980.

Texas Director Peggy Venable said the state organization is fully funded by donations from Texans. Though conservative, Americans for Prosperity is nonpartisan, Venable said.

Similarly situated is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a 20-year-old conservative think tank with a budget of about $2 million a year.

Corporations donated 13 percent of the foundation’s money last year, and 44 percent came from individuals, with foundations and events accounting for the rest. San Antonio businessman James Leininger’s family foundation gave $1 million from 1999 through 2005.

Though nonpartisan, the foundation’s board includes two former chairmen of the Texas Republican Party and is chaired by Wendy Gramm, an economist and wife of former Republican U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.

The Public Policy Foundation doesn’t lobby, and it doesn’t finance campaigns. It finances academic research on economic policy promoting free markets and low taxes.

President Brooke Rollins said the group’s philosophy of free markets and limited government tends to align it with the Republican Party. She noted, however, that the foundation has broken with the GOP on tough-on-crime policies.

Across the aisle is the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a think tank and social-services lobbying organization that was founded in 1985 by the Congregation of Benedictine Sisters to promote improved health-care access for the poor.

The center has expanded its mission to include lobbying on budgetary issues involving social services, education and the protection of children.

The center raised $1.5 million in 2006. Major donors included foundations associated with retired Houston petrochemical executive David Swalm, $237,000; Dallas oilman Fikes, $100,000; former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, $75,000; and the Brown Foundation of Houston, $50,000.

Center Executive Director F. Scott McCown conceded that selling government services for the poor to state budget writers can be difficult.

“We’re not cynical; we’re aspirational. At the same time, many times we accept a 10th of a loaf,” McCown said.

View online at http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/Political_clout_can_be_subtle.html.

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