Public office requires private dollars. Its no secret a candidate needs money to get elected.
The first step in order to begin collecting campaign contributions, or even file as a candidate to run in an election, is to have a treasurer on file with the authority handling that particular election.
“And in many, many, many, many cases, candidates often will just appoint themselves as their campaign treasurer,” said J.R. Johnson, executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.”
“The treasurer does not have any responsibilities other than having their name on the paperwork,” said Laura Barberena, political consultant and owner of Viva Politics. “It’s the candidate who’s responsible for ensuring that the reports are turned in a timely manner.”
Reporting the money
Candidates must report the money they raise and spend, including where the money raised came from and how it was spent.
Campaign contributions are not supposed to be used for personal expenses.
The list of do’s and dont’s is long, but the line can be a little fuzzy.
“A candidate can use their campaign funds to pay for child care expenses to facilitate their travel in connection with having to participate in campaign events,” Johnson said.
For state offices, campaign finance rules are set by the Texas Ethics Commission.
“State level officials file their reports with us. Local officials file with local governments,” Johnson said.
When running for office, candidates must file one campaign finance report 30 days before the election and another eight days before Election Day.
In San Antonio, candidates must stop taking contributions four days before the election.
“That is not a state rule. That’s a city rule,” said San Antonio City Clerk Debbie Racca-Sittre.
Collecting the money
Campaign donations must be deposited into a bank account separate from the candidate’s personal account, though the campaign account can be under the candidate’s name.
In San Antonio, there are campaign contribution limits. The state doesn’t have any.
“A mayoral candidate can raise $1,000 from one person,” Racca-Sittre said. “Then city council candidates are $500 limits.”
That’s per person or per entity.
Even if a large company wants to donate directly to a candidate it must stick to the limit.
Campaign contribution limits are in place one year before an election, in what’s called the “pre-election cycle.”
Those same contributions are in place after the election in what’s called the “post-election cycle.” That period lasts a year until the next pre-election cycle, since city elections are held every two years.
“What’s different is political action committees,” Racca-Sittre said.
“Under law, it is defined fairly broadly as as any group of two or more people whose principal purpose is to raise except political contributions or make political expenditures,” Johnson said.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, don’t often donate money directly to a candidate.
If they do, the contribution limits still apply in local races.
More often, money from a PAC can indirectly benefit a candidate, or an issue on the ballot, through advertising.
Remember the numerous ads against Proposition A in the 2023 city election?
“There were several PACs that were formed against Prop A and they were reported through our system,” Racca-Sittre said. “They had to do a 30 day and 8 day report.”
There are two types of Political Action Committees: SPACs and GPACS.
An SPAC is a Specific Purpose Political Action Committee formed for just that: a specific purpose. For example, an SPAC could be formed in order to support a specific candidate.
A GPAC is a General Political Action Committee, which could spend money in support or opposition of a variety of candidates or issues.
Reports filed, not checked
Neither the City Clerk’s office or the Texas Ethics Commission reviews campaign finance reports.
“We take them at face value and we lock them down and we make them public,” Racca-Sittre said.
The city doesn’t have authority to enforce anything, she added.
“There is a statutory, randomized audit process where a percentage of the reports will be reviewed regardless of whether a complaint has been filed,” Johnson said. “But we’re a small agency and we get many, many thousands of reports each year.”
Following the money is left up to watchdog groups or individual citizens.
That’s part of what Common Cause Texas does.
“It falls to groups like ours and just, you know, Texans that are concerned about these types of issues,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas.
Gutierrez said Common Cause often looks closely at big issues, like gun reform or climate change and follows the money to see if candidates get donations from groups with a stake in those issues.
They’re also on watch, he said, to see if elected officials or candidates use donations for personal gain.
“It’s usually something happens that makes us think there’s something suspicious going on here. For instance, I’ve seen the officeholders or candidates who are not yet elected to office, but they write books and then go on a book tour,” Gutierrez said. “Sometimes they’ll sort of intermix the two, like they’re doing a campaign events while they’re selling their books at the event. And there are potential ways that that could violate campaign finance laws.”
While the City Clerk and Texas Ethics Commission don’t review finance reports, they do take complaints.
“An investigation isn’t initiated unless we receive a complaint. And anybody in Texas can file a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission,” Johnson said.
If a complaint is filed in San Antonio, the city’s ethics auditor reviews the complaint to see whether it warrants an investigation and then gives a candidate a chance to respond.
If there’s a violation, the candidate could be fined.
It’s a similar process at the state level.
But someone has to scrutinize campaign finance reports first.
“The way the system is set up in Texas, it’s pretty easy for an office holder to raise a ton of money and not use that money for its intended purposes, for campaigning or for officeholder expenses, like for them to use it on themselves in a lot of ways,” Gutierrez said.
What happens to campaign money after an election?
Elected officials or those with a campaign account can continue taking campaign contributions after a race is over.
“As long as somebody continues to file those two reports each year and disclose any activity out of that segregated campaign account, they can maintain those contributions indefinitely,” Johnson said.
That’s win or lose an election.
An elected official at the state level must file finance reports two times a year.
Once elected in San Antonio, a public official must file four times a year and contribution limits still apply.
If a candidate or elected leader decides to end their political career and still has money in their campaign account, Texas spells out how they can get rid of it.
If a candidate files what’s called a Final Report with the state, which signals the end of their campaign or time in office, and removes their treasurer, the state says they have six years to get rid of the money.
The money can go to:
- a political party
- state comptroller
- college or university for a scholarship program
- back to people who donated
- a PAC
...and that candidate can be themselves for another office.
“What he could do is make a contribution to another campaign if that other campaign happens to be his own. He can do that,” Barberena said. “But that money would be subject to whatever the contribution limits are for that other seat.”
Who gets to hold those seats is decided by voters.
It’s also up to voters to follow the money that gets candidates there.
“Its a terrible system,” Gutierrez said. “But that’s kind of what you get when the politicians are making the rules for themselves.”