The 2019 Texas inauguration cost a record $5.3 million. Where are the receipts?
Appointees of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick raised a record-setting $5.3 million for the 2019 inaugural festivities, two days’ worth of VIP events that included a ball with country crooner George Strait and a candlelight dinner with the state’s top elected officials.
They reported spending every dollar of it. But don’t ask for any receipts.
The Texas Tribune tried this summer to obtain expense records from multiple state agencies as well as the inaugural committee, a group of private donors appointed by Abbott and Patrick. They claim no such records exist.
“We have conducted a thorough search,” the group’s former executive director, Kim Snyder, who serves as Abbott’s campaign director, said in an email last month. “The 2019 Texas Inaugural Committee has no responsive records.”
The Tribune filed a lawsuit last month under open records laws, seeking to discover what happened to the $5.3 million raised through ticket sales and donations from top lobbying firms, corporations and banks, wealthy businesspeople and trade groups. No taxpayer dollars were expended on the inaugural celebrations, according to the governor’s office.
Bill Aleshire, the attorney representing the Tribune, said the expenditure of money by governmental entities — whether they get it from taxpayers or deep-pocketed contributors — is one of the “core pieces of information the public is entitled to see.”
“The committee is a governmental body by law and is required to keep records,” Aleshire said. “They are not allowed to keep secret the expenditures by this public entity any more than any other public entity can keep that secret.”
The only accounting the committee, which is created by state law, has given the public came in its “final report” to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. In a one-page list of cash receipts and disbursements, the report gives 11 broad categories of expenditures. Among them: $2.4 million for the inaugural ball and special events; $931,000 for fundraising; $899,000 for payroll; $800,000 in charitable donations; and some $210,000 for printing, professional fees, processing fees, travel and “miscellaneous.”
The Tribune asked the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor to help get basic information about the expenditures, such as who was paid to raise the money, the names of people or entities receiving large outlays and which charities got donations. Most of those questions went unanswered.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said no one on the committee and no one who donated to it received any of the money spent, either personally or through their companies, and around $11,000 was transferred to a state inaugural fund to ensure no taxpayer dollars are spent if additional expenses come in. Wittman also said 30 charities across the state received the $800,000 in donations. But he declined to name them, declined to say whether bank records or receipts could be located and declined to answer whether Abbott felt the public deserved to know who got the $5.3 million.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the nondisclosure fits into what he believes is “a standard modus operandi for Texas government to keep things as quiet as possible.
“This is another way for donors to have a connection to Texas politicians,” he said. “This is a tight-as-bark-on-a-tree relationship between money and politics in Texas. That, just when you think you can put money in politics aside for a party, partisan fundraising becomes a big function.”
Appointed in November, the Texas Inaugural Committee swiftly raised $5.3 million for the two-day inaugural celebrations, with the overwhelming majority of the money coming from private contributions ($351,000 was raised through ticket sales).
According to a list provided by the committee in February, the Associated General Contractors of Texas, AT&T, businessman Bobby Cox, H-E-B grocery, IBC bank, Petroplex Energy, Inc., S&B, Dallas billionaire Kenny Troutt, pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and Williams Brothers Construction Company, Inc. all made six figure donations, as did the inaugural committee co-chair, businessman Ray Hunt, and co-chair Mindy Hildebrand, a philanthropist.
The chair, banker and Texas Transportation Commission Chair J. Bruce Bugg Jr., donated $10,000, according to the list released by the committee.
Some of the major recipients of the committee’s spending are obvious: The fee for George Strait, one of the best paid country and western entertainers in the nation, can reach $1 million, according to online estimates. Thousands more were likely spent on facility rental fees, expenses for the candlelight dinner at the Fairmont, and printing costs for the gold-embossed inaugural programs.
Records from the Comptroller of Public Accounts indicate more than $11,000 may also have been pumped into an inaugural endowment fund that can be spent on charitable causes or to decorate the Capitol, the governor’s mansion and other historically significant state properties.
Candidates for state office in Texas are banned from taking corporate donations for their electoral campaigns. But donations to the inauguration are not considered to be political contributions under state statute — and the inaugural committee, a unique entity created by the Legislature, is not required to make the kind of campaign finance disclosures politicians must make throughout the year.
There are a few rules, though, and keeping up with how the money gets spent is one of them.
In addition to filing a short financial report, the committee must maintain a record of its expenditures that includes the name of the entity paid, and the amount, date and purpose of the payment, according to state statute.
So far, The Tribune has been unable to get those details.
The Tribune began filing open records requests in August with the secretary of state’s office and with members of the inaugural committee. Though the Tribune specifically asked that the committee not be dissolved before the outstanding requests were fulfilled, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs issued a proclamation to abolish it on Sept. 18.
The Tribune’s lawsuit was filed two days earlier — after repeated efforts to obtain inaugural committee records proved fruitless. The Library and Archives Commission directed a request to the secretary of state’s office and the state comptroller. The comptroller directed the Tribune to the secretary of state. And the secretary of state’s office told the Tribune that they did not have a record of the inaugural committee’s expenditures. “The statute instructs the committee to maintain those records,” a legal assistant wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Like in Texas, the last presidential inauguration in Washington was organized by a nonprofit committee. But it has received intense scrutiny over reports of lavish spending and allegations that it may have received illegal foreign contributions. A required tax filing the federal committee submitted to the Internal Revenue Service revealed unflattering details about contractors’ pay, including $26 million given to an event planning firm founded by an advisor to First Lady Melania Trump.
“As we have seen in allegations about the Trump inauguration, sometimes there is abuse in the way that money is spent,” said Aleshire, the lawyer. “Disclosure is one way not only to catch such abuses that might have occurred but for the future knowing that the records are going to be disclosed, it discourages bad behavior in the next inaugural committee.”
Disclosure: AT&T, H-E-B, IBC bank, the Texas Sectetary of State, the University of Houston, and J. Doug Pitcock of the Williams Bros. Construction Co., Inc. have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. J. Bruce Bugg is chairman of The Tobin Endowment, which has been a major donor to the Tribune. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Governor Greg Abbott Delivers 2019 Texas Inaugural Speech
**Governor Abbott often deviates from prepared remarks
It’s an honor to take the oath as Governor of the greatest state in America.
We gather today for far more than just an inauguration. Today is the dawn of a transformative session that will usher in a new era. A new era for children, teachers, and taxpayers.
This will happen because of my partners here today: Speaker Bonnen, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and all the members of the house and senate.
It is a blessing to embark upon this mission with Cecilia by my side. A fabulous mother to our wonderful daughter Audrey. She’s a powerful advocate for Texas. And she made history by being the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas.
I can’t let this moment pass without thanking our large and diverse family, especially my father-in-law Bill Phalen. Unfortunately, health prevents the most famous mother-in-law in Texas, mi suegra, Maria de la luz Segura Phalen, from being here today.
I also want to thank my brother Gary and his wife Denise. Gary is a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy. He served our nation for 20 years.
We must never forget we have the freedom to build a better Texas only because of the men and women who served in the U.S. military. If there’s anyone who’s worn the uniform of the U.S. Military, will you please stand or wave your hand so we can thank you for your service.
Now, some people say Texas is at an apex. They rightfully point to the fact that more Texans have jobs today than ever before. In fact, Texans created almost a million new jobs over the past 4 years and we set record lows for unemployment.
Texas remains the unrivaled national leader in agriculture, energy, and exports, and we dominate fields like healthcare, finance, and technology. The Texas brand of opportunity attracts more of our fellow Americans to our state than any other state.
Despite the exceptional heights to which Texas has climbed, I believe we have only risen to the foothills of what we can become. I know we can do even more for our fellow Texans.
We can do more to educate the next generation and keep them safe at school. More to advance our universities to meet the changes sweeping the 21st century. More to rein in the property tax burden on our citizens. More to help our coastal region become resilient to catastrophic storms. More to crack down on human trafficking and the dangerous gangs promoting it.
All of this we can do. All of this we must do, because we live in the greatest state in America and we have an obligation to make it even better.
No doubt Texas has reached an unrivaled economic summit.
But from that perch, it is clear that too many young Texans have difficulty on their own journey to prosperity.
Holding them back is an education system that’s not adequate to put our students on the path to excellence that they deserve.Yes, we are graduating more students from high school than ever before. At the same time, more students are graduating unprepared for college or a career.Our students deserve better. Our teachers deserve better. Our taxpayers deserve better.It is time for Texas to deliver real education reform. We don’t have to look far for solutions.
Two years ago, Titche Elementary was one of the worst schools in Dallas. A year later, all that changed. Out of 145 elementary schools, Titche rose from being 132nd to the 2nd best elementary school in Dallas.
Five years ago, Dallas Independent School District had 43 failing campuses. Today, they have just four. And behavior is better. At Titche Elementary, school suspensions dropped by almost 90%. What changed?
A new principal was hired. He brought in highly rated teachers and set clear standards for students. He added people and policies that improved student success.
Know this: Titche Elementary is not an isolated example. Other districts in Texas like in San Antonio, Lubbock, and Pharr-San Juan have achieved similar results using similar strategies.
These achievements were possible because of bold leadership by superintendents and school boards who broke the mold making tough decisions to prioritize student achievement.
We must ensure destiny is not determined by zip code. Students from the most challenging circumstances can perform at the highest levels. But we have to give them the opportunity to succeed.
Success like this will not be achieved just by spending more money. It will be achieved by recruiting and retaining educators who deliver better outcomes for our students.
Today, we must dedicate ourselves to making our schools better than they have ever been.
This session, we must act to pay our best teachers more. We must reward teachers and school districts that achieve results. We must prioritize spending in the classroom, shore up the Teacher Retirement System, and yes, the state will invest more in public education.
The eyes of Texas are upon us. We have the opportunity and the obligation to get this right. We can and we will better fund education.
We will pay our teachers more and reward achievement in the classroom. We will reform a school finance system that robs one district to pay another. We will put our schools on a pathway to having all 3rd graders reading at grade level. We will prepare our high school students for college or a career. And we will do this without a court order.
I want to make this very clear. We will do what no one thought possible. We will finally fix school finance.
While one generation is struggling to climb the ladder of success, others have a ceiling on how high they can go. A ceiling imposed by an archaic property tax system.
A system that punishes families and businesses and prevents younger Texans from achieving their dream of homeownership.
Just a few blocks from here you see cranes operating above sprouting skyscrapers. In the shadow of those giant cranes, businesses are shuttering, unable to keep up with skyrocketing property taxes.
Go a few blocks further and you’ll find residents forced out of their homes. Victims of unaffordable housing. A by-product of those same skyrocketing property taxes. That is not what Texas is about.
Texas is a place of hope and opportunity where anyone can achieve their dreams if they’re willing to put in the work. But the promise that Texas offers is threatened by out of control property taxes.
As you know, the property tax burden is not unique to Austin. I’ve talked to Texans from Amarillo to Laredo, Texans in suburbs and inner cities, and they all demand property tax relief.
As one woman from Waco recently told me: “Governor, something has to be done. Some homeowners here in the poorest areas of Waco had their home values doubled by the appraisal district. How is that honest or fair? It’s not.”
This session, we must finally rein in skyrocketing property taxes in Texas.
Some people say we can’t afford property tax reform. I say we can’t afford not to reform a system that punishes homeowners, crushes businesses, and cripples our schools.
A state as prosperous as Texas should not punish seniors who have worked their entire lives to retire in a home they have already paid off. And it shouldn’t force middle and low income Texans out of their neighborhoods.
To fix this, Texas must limit the ability of taxing authorities to raise your property taxes. At the same time, Texas must end unfunded mandates on cities and counties. And taxpayers should be given the power to fire their property tax appraiser.
Some cynics say we can’t solve these intractable problems. They are too complex. Too political. Too hard. The cynics forget the legendary Texan resolve. The resolve of heroes who fought for Texas liberty while remembering the Alamo. That resolve has been passed from one generation of Texans to another. Through oil booms and busts, through Dust Bowls and devastating floods, through wind storms and billowing fires.
From moments of triumph to horrors of tragedy, generation after generation, Texans have been tested. And Texans have prevailed.
We live in a state where Texans have always tapped into our trademark resilience and ingenuity to rise above our challenges.
We live in a state where the grandson of a slave who was sold on the courthouse steps in Waco rose up to be Chief Justice of our highest court.
A state where a little girl shuffled from foster home to foster home drew strength from her grandparents in Houston. She went on to become the first American woman gymnast to win 4 Gold Medals in a single Olympics.
And yes, we live in a state where a young man can have his back broken in half and still rise up and be Governor of this great state.
We will muster that same resolve, that same ingenuity, to tackle the challenges of our time. And we will prevail.
Together, we will pay our teachers more. We will provide a better education for our students. We will make our schools safer. We will tackle skyrocketing property taxes. We will help Texans recover from storms that have ravaged our communities. We will do all this and more.
Together, we will ensure every generation reaches their mountaintop. And together, we will keep Texas the greatest state in America.
Thank you. God bless you all, and God bless Texas.