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Public Interest Groups Getting Ready to Lobby

BY Bruce Hight
by Bruce Hight on 1/5/01.

Some call them good government, watchdog or public interest groups. Their harshest critics say they are liberal Democrats posing as nonpartisans, or fronts for ambulance-chasing trial lawyers.

Whatever the label, groups such as Consumers Union, Public Citizen, Common Cause of Texas and Texas Watch will spend the next five months in the Capitol lobbying, testifying and holding news conferences in hopes of getting the Legislature to see things their way.

Some want lawmakers to pass stiffer laws protecting consumers from business rip-offs. Others want the Legislature to reform campaign spending or to strengthen open government records and meetings laws.

The groups generally say they speak on behalf the general public.

They also say they speak for consumers, or for those who can't hire the lobbyists who cater to corporate Texas.

"We speak on behalf of low- and moderate-income Texans," said Dick Lavine, a fiscal policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "It's partly just because these are people who are not well organized, and they don't have a voice of their own."

Craig McDonald, who directs Texans for Public Justice, says his group supports "anything that will unlock the grip of the business lobby on Texas politics, or at least loosen that grip."

Some legislators resent the so-called do-gooders. The most outspoken is Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.

Sibley charges that the groups represent only themselves . He notes that they won't disclose all their contributors even as they demand more openness from elected officials. And he said many are liberal or left-wing groups, but the media won't say so in the same way they'll describe other groups as right-wing.

"Any time they have a press release," Sibley said, "everybody in the press will pick it up and quote them -- 'so-and-so watchdog group.' What it is is some person with a fax machine and a computer at home, and they act like they've got such big organizations doing a whole lot of work."

Sibley allows one exception to his criticism: Common Cause of Texas, which fully discloses its membership.

None of the groups makes political endorsements. And all are nonprofit corporations.

All deny they are liberal, although a few don't mind being described as progressive or populist.

Citizens For a Sound Economy, however, stands in contrast to the other citizen groups. It champions free market economics over government regulation and seeks to reduce the role of government and taxes.

"Consumers also understand that cumbersome regulations on business and industry means higher price for consumers," said Peggy Venable, director of the group in Texas.

Most of the organizations get their money from some combination of nonprofit foundations, wealthy donors and annual membership dues. Except for Common Cause, none disclose their membership lists or report in detail all their financial contributors.

They say they must protect members from harassment, retaliation and marketing calls.

The groups say there's nothing hypocritical about demanding more openness from public officeholders while guarding their own membership and donor lists.

Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen in Texas, said groups like his -- unlike lawmakers -- can't decide which legislation is passed and which is ignored.

"There is a fairly significant distinction between those two roles," he said.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce and a former Republican member of the Texas House, said he thinks "many of these groups do not have a substantial membership. When you look behind the curtain, it's much like the Wizard of Oz, when he said, 'Ignore that man behind the curtain.' "

But some of the groups can claim real support -- especially Consumers Union, founded in 1936 and perhaps best-known for its monthly magazine that evaluates consumer products. The magazine claims about 4.5 million subscribers, including 208,000 in Texas.

Legislators need consumer and other such groups, said Reggie James, director of Consumer Union's Southwest Regional office.

Otherwise, he said, Sibley -- and other officeholders -- are "only getting one side of the argument when he's being lobbied, and we try to counter that."

You may contact Bruce Hight at or 445-3977.


Consumer voices

These are some of the most active groups who say they work on behalf of good government or consumer interests. Each group is the source for its membership and financial information:

Consumers Union

Membership: 208,000 Texas subscribers

Funding: Primarily revenue from its magazine, Consumer Reports; also foundation grants

Southwest regional office budget: More than $ 700,000

Southwest regional office staff: Eight full-time, plus interns

Mission: Represent low- and moderate-income consumers

Texas Director: Reggie James

Phone: (512) 477-4431


E-mail: None.

Note: Founded in 1936; oldest of consumer groups and best-staffed

Texas Watch

Membership: 3,000, paid and unpaid (about 25 percent paid annual dues of $

Funding: Dues and foundation grants.

Annual budget: $ 200,000

Staff: Four full-time

Mission: Represent consumers

Director: Dan Lambe

Phone: (512) 381-1111 or (800) 738-4226



Note: Founded in 1998, especially interested this session in insurance reform

Texas Citizens

For A Sound Economy

Membership: 8,000 in Texas

Funding: Initial contribution from new members averages $ 17.50, but no annual dues; wealthy individuals and corporate donors

Annual budget: About $ 250,000 in Texas

Texas staff: Four full-time

Mission: Less government spending and regulation, lower taxes

Texas director: Peggy Venable

Phone: (512) 476-5905



Note: Not the stereotypical consumer group -- puts its trust in free market economics, not government regulation

Common Cause of Texas

Common Cause of Texas

Membership: 5,000 in Texas, based on $ 20 annual dues ($ 34 for a family)

Funding: Annual dues, foundation grants

Annual budget: $ 100,000 for Texas office, raised locally

Staff: One full-time, one part-time

Mission: Promote open government, ethics, lobby regulation and campaign finance reform

Texas director: Suzy Woodford

Phone: (512) 474-2374

Internet: comcause

E- mail:

Note: One of the original good-government groups, as opposed to consumer-oriented organizations

Public Citizen in Texas

Public Citizen TexasMembership: 4,500 in Texas, based on anyone who contributes at least $ 25

Funding: Annual dues, foundation grants, including Rockefeller Family Foundation; no industry association funding, but some trial lawyers are members

Annual budget: $ 250,000 in Texas.

Staff: Three full-time

Mission: To ensure product safety and that government regulatory bodies represent citizen interests

Director: Tom "Smitty" Smith

Phone: (512) 477-1155


E- mail:

Note: Founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, and for that reason alone suspect in the eyes of many conservative legislators.

Center for Public Policy Priorities

Center for Public Policy Priorities

Membership: None

Funding: Ford Foundation, Brown Foundation (of Houston) and other foundation grants; the Benedictine order of Catholic nuns; fund-raising events

Annual budget: $ 1.3 million

Staff: 14 full-time

Mission: To represent low- and moderate-income families in Texas

Director: Dianne Smith

Phone: (512) 320-0222



Note: Founded by the Benedictine nuns, but now independent; conducts considerable research

Texans for Public Justice

Membership: None, but a list of 1,300 donors are solicited annually

Funding: Foundations, individual donors

Annual budget: $ 325,000

Staff: Five full-time, plus interns

Mission: To track and publicize the role of money in Texas politics and government, especially campaign contributions

Director: Craig McDonald

Phone: (512) 472-9770



Note: Writing detailed and often barbed reports on campaign contributors, this group can embarrass the businesses who give and the officeholders who receive.

CORRECTION-DATE: January 10, 2001

In a story in Friday's A section, the number of Texas members of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy was misstated: It is 48,000. Also, information about the Center for Public Policy Priorities was incorrect: The center's executive director is Dianne Stewart, and its e-mail address is