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    Public Interest Groups Getting Ready to Lobby

    BY Bruce Hight
    01/05/2001

    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 bhight@statesman.com or 445-3977.

    (FROM BOX)

    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

    Internet: www.consumersunion.org

    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 $
    25)

    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

    Internet: www.texaswatch.org

    E-mail: texaswatch@texaswatch.org

    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

    Internet: www.cse.org

    E-mail: pvenable@cse.org

    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: www.ccsi.com/ comcause

    E- mail: comcause@ccsi.com

    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

    Internet: www.citizen.org

    E- mail: smitty@citizen.org

    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

    Internet: www.cppp.org

    E-mail: cppp.cppp.org

    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

    Internet: www.tpj.org

    E-mail: tpj@tpj.org

    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

    CORRECTION:
    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 cppp@cppp.org.

    by Bruce Hight on 1/5/01.