Texans often lament that political campaigns seem to be a race over which candidate can spend the most money. In the campaign for House District 73, the spending spree by State Rep. Doug Miller (R-New Braunfels) certainly fits that description.
In the first round of his reelection campaign, the incumbent spent an exorbitant sum of nearly $1 million on mail, fundraisers, advertising, and other expenses – outspending his two opponents by a margin of 4 to 1. But Miller’s campaign finance reports show he is also taking his campaign donors for a ride.
Contained on Miller’s ethics reports is an almost $900 monthly expense for a “campaign vehicle monthly lease payment.” Though the exact vehicle is not publicly disclosed, campaign photos suggest the payments may be for a convertible Chevy Camaro. Miller rode in the Camaro with his wife at the Comal County Fair Parade. Miller’s report listed no vehicle rental for the parade nor an in-kind contribution of the vehicle by a supporter. While not direct evidence, market research suggests that the high monthly payment for the lease could feasibly belong to a “Campaign Camaro.”
Miller’s campaign refused to answer questions about the make, model, and use of the “campaign vehicle.”
Unfortunately, Miller’s exorbitant expenditure isn’t too far outside the norm for establishment politicians.
We’ve seen conspicuous consumption on the campaign trail before this cycle. Though a multimillionaire, State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) puts his donors on the hook for a $3,800 per month Austin apartment with cable and Internet.
The same politicians who are reckless on the campaign trail are equally willing to waste taxpayers’ money while in office. And the justification for such extravagance appears to be the same. With so much money moving through the campaign account (or government coffers), don’t politicians deserve to skim some off the top as compensation for their “hard work?”
The Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) certainly thinks so. Last year the corrupt body that has been on the attack against conservatives voted to increase legislators’ per diem despite lawmakers not even asking for the raise. TEC Chairman Paul Hobby literally admitted the handout was a shameless attempt to bribe lawmakers to beef up the TEC’s budget (which had been sharply depleted by losing free speech-silencing lawsuits).
More importantly, the increase in legislator compensation triggered a higher reporting threshold for lobby gifts, meaning more wining and dining of legislators and staff would be kept off-the-books and out of view of the taxpaying public.
Despite a prohibition on campaign contributions during a legislative session, lobbyists are allowed to gift hundreds or even thousands of dollars in food and entertainment to legislators and their staff without any detailed reporting requirements. As the Texas Tribune reported, “A lawmaker or staffer who really wanted to take advantage of the rules (and the favors of lobbyists) could ride pretty high for the 20 weeks of the legislative session.” Out of session, lobbyists enjoy even greater flexibility to scratch the backs of politicians who have scratched theirs.
Campaign funds are not supposed to be redirected toward personal expenses. However, when politicians can use contributions to pay for leases on luxury vehicles and high-dollar apartments, the risk that they will become addicted to a life of lobby-funded luxury becomes all the more alluring.
Taxpayers should take a hard look at how politicians spend their donors’ contributions. It’s a strong indicator of how they’ll spend their tax dollars in office. Lawmakers willing to rack up huge expenses on the campaign trail are a sure bet to engage in the same behavior in office.