February 7, 2014
by Robert Garrett and David Barer

AUSTIN — A new conservative group is trying to extend influence in Republican state House primaries, with the stated goal of helping shine a spotlight on — and if need be, rein in — state and local spending, including on education.

The Accountability First PAC, funded mostly by nine successful businessmen, is helping at least 10 House candidates in North Texas, records show. Each has been asked to sign a pledge promising strict adherence to spending limits and opposition to tax increases.

The group’s founder, oil and natural gas entrepreneur James Jones of Austin, said Friday that the PAC is freestanding, calls its own shots and only exists to promote limited government and individual responsibility.

But critics say it’s working, implicitly if not directly, with other staunchly conservative groups that regularly clash with school boards and teachers’ organizations. For many, they complain, the goal is to oust House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

And they fear that if the group is able to elect more staunch conservatives to the House, the push to limit spending will make it harder to address pressing needs in infrastructure and education.

About 80 percent of the 27 GOP House candidates that have received $166,000 in direct help from the PAC, and probably the bulk of an additional $200,000 it has spent on ancillary services, also have been backed by the political arm of Empower Texans, the conservative grassroots group led by activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

One is Straus’ opponent in the March 4 GOP primary, tea party activist Matt Beebe.

Another is farmer Cullen Crisp of Granbury, who received $2,500 in cash and $3,000 in voter-list software from Accountability First for his bid to unseat a top Straus ally, nine-term Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland.

“They are not advocates of the public school system,” Keffer campaign manager Evan Autry said Friday. He noted the PAC unsuccessfully sought to defeat a $25 million school bond issue in November in Mineral Wells, which is in Keffer’s district.

The PAC is merely another “phony organization” set up by Sullivan and his chief financial sponsor, Midland oil and gas company founder Tim Dunn, Autry said.

“Each is designed to attack public school advocates like Representative Keffer with bogus score cards and negative advertising,” he said.

Jones responded that he and brother Bill Jones, also an oilman and founder of a company that does most of the PAC’s work, are not appendages to Sullivan’s and Dunn’s various political entities.

The Joneses are from Odessa and have friendly relations with Sullivan’s group and other Texas activists who are fiscal hawks and social conservatives, James Jones said. But they are not cooperating to vet candidates or offer support.

“In order to be the best informed, understand policy issues, we try to reach out and speak to other groups and understand what’s going on,” he said. “But we’re a totally independent group.”

Expanded reach

Last year, with mixed success, the Accountability First PAC opposed tax-ratification and construction-bond propositions in several cities and school districts, including fast-growing districts in Plano, Denton, Fort Worth and the Lovejoy district in Collin County that includes Fairview, Lucas and part of Allen.

James Jones, 43, said he got involved in politics a few years ago. He had just become the father of a baby girl, and he said the inspiration came from watching Waiting for Superman, a documentary hailed by advocates of giving more choices to parents of children attending subpar public schools.

He said he’s very concerned that local government debt in Texas was $8,383 per person in 2011, the second highest of any state. Other analysts say that’s a natural in a state with a fast-growing population and low levels of state support for local governments. Texas ranks at or very near the bottom among states in spending per capita.

This year, James Jones said, he wanted the PAC to “broaden out” and try to affect state policies. By playing in House races, he’s able to wield influence. They typically involve low-budget campaigns.

As of Jan. 23, the PAC had nearly $270,000 in cash. Asked if he hoped to pour as much as $1 million into House races, Jones said, “I’m shooting for the biggest amount of money that we can raise.”

Apart from the PAC, Bill Jones’ Local Voice Solutions has sold $12,500 in campaign management software to GOP comptroller candidate Debra Medina, who has a strong tea party following.

The company recruits candidates and supplies them with voter-data software and logistical support for door-to-door canvassing, said Bill Jones, 46, who also lives in Austin. He said it also has helped the Senate campaigns of Dallas developer Donald Huffines and one other candidate he wouldn’t name. Huffines is challenging Dallas GOP Sen. John Carona, who has served in the Senate since 1996.

Taking the pledge

Accountability First has asked House hopefuls to sign a six-point “Liberty Protection Pledge.” Its provisions include opposition to tax increases, support for a tighter state spending cap, backing of private property rights and a pledge to disclose conflicts of interest.

Signers vow that if they violate the pledge, they won’t seek re-election. It is not legally binding, but a violation would probably be politically damaging in a future GOP primary.

James Jones said he didn’t intend for the pledge to become public. He said he devised it as a tool “to make sure the PAC and the candidates are on the same page.” He declined to say which candidates had signed it.

Among the contractors Bill Jones’ company has hired is Amanda Venable, daughter of Americans for Prosperity-Texas leader Peggy Venable, a political ally of Sullivan’s.

The Jones brothers’ efforts also included political consultant Luke Macias, son of former Rep. Nathan Macias, a San Antonio-area Republican who upset a moderate Republican with heavy backing from one-time conservative movement financial angel James Leininger.

James Jones said his PAC isn’t designed to oust Straus. He said PAC leaders didn’t ask prospective candidates whom they would back in next year’s election of a speaker.

“It’s not something we’re focused on at all,” he said.

Still, some candidates being helped by Accountability First were happy to declare support for Straus’ challenger for speaker, freshman Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco.

Former Collin County Commissioner Matt Shaheen of Plano, who received $2,500 from the PAC in his race for an open House seat, said he’d vote for Turner.

“It would send a strong message nationally if Scott Turner were elected,” he said.

A Straus spokesman declined to comment about the PAC. Asked if it signals a civil war between GOP party purifiers and establishment moderates, Straus spokesman Jason Embry only would say that the speaker has helped to deliver “conservative results” in the past three sessions.

“The Texas House has balanced the budget, cut taxes, reformed education and helped Texas lead the nation in job creation,” he said.

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