The swirling force of Texas politics

Texas Lawmakers Showered With Free Football Tickets

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Rob Marmion

    In football-mad Texas the busy season is beginning for lobbyists, who will give away tens of thousands of dollars in tickets to state lawmakers for Cowboys and Texans NFL games, as well as highly anticipated college tilts.

    The San Antonio Express-News reported Sunday that since 2005, lobbyists have given away sporting tickets worth up to $192,000. According to state ethics records, tickets went to a combination of lawmakers, state employees and their families.

    In 2012 alone, lobbyists doled out sporting tickets valued up to $16,600.

    It's the product of state ethics laws that allow lobbyists to shower lawmakers, state employees and their immediate families with freebies, as long as the value doesn't exceed $500 annually. But lobbyists can give gifts that exceed $500 if they simply split the cost. 

    Harris County's legislative lineup every season gets invited to a pre-season game in a luxury box with Houston Texans owner Bob McNair -- an event held annually since at least 2006, and which has seen McNair give away $46,000 in tickets and around $15,000 for food and drink. 

    Sometimes, lawmakers have scored tickets for events such as the Rose Bowl, NCAA Sweet 16 and NBA All Star Game. And they're given free entrance into any home college football game at major universities like Texas and Texas A&M.

    In Arlington, lobbyists hired by the Dallas Cowboys use a team suite to host three to four lawmakers at every home game -- but there's no one-on-one potential with owner Jerry Jones.

    In return for free tickets, lobbyists say they are hoping to make headway on issues that affect teams every legislative session, usually including taxes, traffic and alcohol sales issues. 

    Football aside, lobbyists have given away around $63,000 in free tickets to sporting events for Texas' baseball and basketball teams since 2005. That includes about $23,000 in free San Antonio Spurs tickets and about $5,500 in Houston Rockets tickets.

    Meanwhile, many free tickets don't come directly from teams or their lobbyists. Many large corporations own luxury suites that their lobbyists use to woo lawmakers.

    In the case of the Texans, outside lobbyists reported giving away passes to games worth about $26,000 since 2005. Outside lobbyists have spent about the same on Cowboys tickets. 

    But that's only what's being fully disclosed. Watchdog groups say there's potentially thousands of dollars more in free sporting tickets that never get fully reported. 

    Lobbyists can skirt reporting rules by splitting the cost of a sporting ticket so that it falls below the $90 threshold that requires a lawmaker's name and the event attended to be reported. That way, lobbyists can file the free tickets as a generic entertainment expenditure. 

    Records show Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, has accepted tickets valued at about $3,800 for himself and his family. That includes passes for the Spurs, Texans and Cowboys. 

    Sen. Ken Paxton, a Republican from McKinney who's running for state attorney general, also received tickets for him and his family valued in the neighborhood of $3,800. 

    Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, has attended a free Texans game every year since 2005 -- and in the process has used lobby tickets with a value up to $4,000 for her and her family.

    And Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has accepted tickets worth around $2,000 since 2005.