A measure “aimed at stifling political speech” awaits action in the Texas Senate after passing the House with overwhelming support.
House Bill 1585 by State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) would establish several new requirements for individuals or organizations that seek to influence legislation or a race for speaker of the Texas House.
First, it would require anyone who names a lawmaker while publicly advocating for or against legislation to let consumers know that the communication is considered political advertising. Second, it would require those who engage in this activity to file regular reports with the Texas Ethics Commission disclosing the names and addresses of donors who contribute at least $50 in a six-month period. Third, it would require anyone who promotes a candidate for speaker to pay up to $750 to register as a lobbyist.
During the bill’s committee hearing, Geren said the proposal would “better facilitate efficient disclosure and meaningful transparency by those who spend money in an effort to influence elections or legislative outcomes.”
When State Rep. John Smithee (R–Amarillo) asked Geren to provide “an example of what kind of conduct you’re targeting,” Geren replied that the bill is intended to regulate “outside sources” that “advertise on social media and other platforms to attack a member’s legislation without saying who they’re going after.”
“This says that if you’re gonna spend the money to attack me or attack you, or whomever, you just have to say … these ads were to attack Geren or support Geren,” he explained.
In December of last year, Geren and State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R–Lubbock) attempted to intervene in a case that resulted in a U.S. district court invalidating a Texas law that barred individuals from contributing to a campaign for speaker of the Texas House.
And earlier this month, Texas Family Project spent $30,000 to air a radio ad in Phelan’s district that criticized him for not doing more to push legislation to prohibit sexually explicit drag shows open to children. Phelan responded by sending a cease-and-desist letter to the stations running the ad, claiming it misrepresented his position on the issue.
First Amendment attorney Tony McDonald said HB 1585 is a “thinly disguised ruse aimed at stifling political speech.”
“Citizens and issue advocacy groups have every right to speak out on whatever the Legislature is doing, whether they name a certain lawmaker or not,” he explained. “It’s ridiculous to ask ordinary people to jump through hoops like the ones in this bill to make their voices heard.”
McDonald added that the bill is “bonkers” and “totally unconstitutional,” predicting it would not stand up in court if enacted into law.
When HB 1585 reached the House floor, Democrats tried to amend it to limit contributions to candidates for state office, arguing there should be “more visibility over dark money.” Those efforts were unsuccessful.
HB 1585 passed the House on May 10 by a 131-14 vote, and it has been referred to the State Affairs Committee in the Senate.
The legislative session ends on May 29.