NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM/TEXAS TRIBUNE) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott Abbott and the 2019 Texas Inaugural Committee lost a months-long fight to keep details of their record-setting spending secret. The Texas Tribune sued and obtained the documents in an out-of-court settlement.
In all, the Committee raised $5.3 million for the celebrations — with the majority of the money coming from private donations.
Abbott’s 2019 reelection inaugural was a 2-day event that included balls, candlelight dinners, barbecues and other VIP events.
Included in the costs paid by the inaugural committee was $1.7 million to hire country singer George Strait and his band — about equal the amount former Gov. Rick Perry spent on his entire 2011 inauguration. More than $1 million was awarded to a tight cluster of political aides and staff — some receiving six-figure bonuses, $930,000 was spent on payroll and $931,000 on fundraising expenses — including $908,000 in commissions for the fundraisers, and the committee spent $271,000 on barbecue. A handful of charities received $800,000 in unspent money.
Not included in the record-setting total doled out — the $116,000 taxpayers spent to keep all the inaugural expenditures secret.
Few records document Texas inaugural committee spending, and those that exist are inconsistent about how expenditures are categorized year to year.
In 2011, Governor Rick Perry spent $1.99 million for his inauguration.
Available documents dating to the 1970s show spending on Abbott’s two inaugurals has eclipsed that of any other in Texas for at least 40 years; inaugural committee spending has soared from $1.6 million in 1983 to $5.6 million in 2015, with both figures adjusted for inflation.
The newly obtained financial records show that an increasing share of the money has gone to “professional fees,” payroll for political staff and fundraisers.
In 2019, the committee spent $1.9 million, or 35% of the money from donors and ticket sales, on those personnel costs, after spending 27% on them in 2015.
By contrast, 5.7% of the money spent on the 1983 inaugural went to contractors and payroll. That rose to 10.6% in 1991, 14% in 1995 and averaged 18% under former Gov. Perry. (The financial report for 1999, covering former Gov. George W. Bush’s second inaugural, could not be located by the Texas Tribune.)
Experts, like Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, said the amount spent on fundraising in 2019 far exceeded the norm. Usually fundraisers can expect to receive about 10% on what they raise for a political campaign. Instead, the inaugural committee spent nearly twice that – 19% – on fundraising last year.
Unlike raising money for a campaign, where direct corporate contributions are banned and the candidates haven’t been elected yet, the private inaugural fundraisers only had to ask people and companies to write checks for the winners. Big donations bought access to special events, like the candlelight dinner or a photo opportunity with the governor.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Kimberly Snyder, Abbott’s 2018 campaign director and the executive director of his 2019 inaugural committee.
The Texas Inaugural Committee is typically chaired by politically connected donors – last year, the chairs and co-chairs were banker and Texas Transportation Commission Chair J. Bruce Bugg Jr., businessman Ray Hunt and philanthropist Mindy Hildebrand.
Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, who represented the Texas Tribune in the lawsuit, said the legal fight he had to wage to get the records highlights the need for better transparency in state inaugurations, which suck up gobs of corporate money but face little regulation over how it gets spent.
“We just don’t have that level of transparency written into the law,” Aleshire said.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM CBSDFW