- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A top Texas House committee on Thursday re-examined a possible crackdown on anonymous donations from “dark money” political groups, defying Gov. Rick Perry, who has already vetoed a plan that would have subjected them to stricter disclosure laws.

The fiercely debated issue pits many established members of the Texas Legislature from both parties, who have clamored for more government transparency, against powerful tea party groups and conservative grass-roots activists who say any such rules would violate free speech. But the larger issue is vast sums of money flowing into politics and how open those donating it have to be - questions with potential national implications since few states have more deep-pocketed donors than Texas.

The 2013 proposal would have required some politically active not-for-profit groups whose nonprofit status exempts them from campaign finance laws to disclose donors who give more than $1,000. That would make such organizations more like traditional political action committees, which are required to disclose top donors.

The measure passed the Republican-controlled Legislature after heated debate, but drew Perry’s veto last May.

Members of the influential State Affairs Committee called for reviving it during a hearing Thursday, arguing that the public should know the sources of “dark-money” contributions.

“The lack of transparency and accountability in the campaign system fortifies public mistrust of government,” said Rep. Byron Cook, a Corsicana Republican who chairs the committee.

Jim Clancy, chairman of Texas’ ethics commission, told committee members that though dark-money contributions have accounted for less than 2 percent of all political donations in Texas since 2010, their frequency has grown fast in recent months - and should continue to spike if disclosure rules aren’t changed.

“Texas has very few limits; it just requires disclosure,” said Clancy, referencing a lack of caps on the size of donations, or how much money can be given from out of state. He later added, “The defense mechanism that the public has is the transparency of who is making that contribution.”

Many conservative groups, however, oppose what they say will heap unwanted attention on donors trying to retain apolitical images. They also argue that disclosing big donors to groups that oppose abortion or work in other controversial areas could subject them to public ridicule or physical threats.

Tea party leaders, meanwhile, claim that mainstream lawmakers have targeted dark money groups to keep them from funding potential primary challengers that could eventually unseat them from the Legislature.

Russell Withers, general counsel for the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, told the committee that stricter disclosure limits would keep many ordinary Texans from making political donations for fear of reprisals, and that exempting donors giving under $1,000 wasn’t enough.

“This is government inappropriately choosing at what threshold someone has to disclose their participation in the political process,” Withers said.

Tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said Thursday that requiring more disclosure “would be a disastrous policy that would unconstitutionally chill free speech.”

“The Texas Legislature should not enact these pernicious laws at the state level,” Cruz said in a Facebook post.

The Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet again until January, though Perry could call a special session.

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