Well-funded PAC targets Texas House Speaker Straus

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Associated Press

Posted on February 9, 2014 at 12:02 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and top allies are facing new pressure from a conservative group that is bankrolling challengers in the March primary behind big checks from prominent figures in Texas politics.

Among the top donors to Accountability First are embattled University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall and Jeff Sandefer, whose proposals to reshape higher education have stirred turmoil on Texas campuses but are embraced by Gov. Rick Perry.

Both have given a combined $300,000 to the political action committee, the San Antonio Express-News reported Saturday (http://bit.ly/1bcK9qZ ). That money to Accountability First is backing more than two dozen Republican House candidates — mostly newcomers — whose victories would further push the 150-member chamber to the far right.

Straus has been speaker since 2009 but has long frustrated ultra-conservatives, who blast him as moderate and criticize his appointees who chair powerful House committees.

Among those targeted by Accountability First is Republican Rep. Byron Cook, who chairs the State Affairs Committee.

"This is different from a PAC which may represent thousands of people around the state. This is the definition of a special interest with a few wealthy individuals who have a specific agenda with respect to policy," Cook said. "Their position seems to be as long as you're in leadership, we're against you."

Accountability First Treasurer Trey Trainor said the group's goal is to help elect candidates with a "conservative governing philosophy."

"Our overarching policy goal is fiscal conservatism in the state," he told the newspaper. "I don't think we're particularly focused on being anti-Straus. We are supporting candidates running against incumbents, but it's based on an analysis of how that incumbent has voted and governed in office."

Hall gave $100,000 to the group on Sept. 27, which came as one of Straus' committees was investigating Hall over allegations that could lead to his impeachment.

Hall is accused of abusing his powers in a crusade against flagship Austin campus president Bill Powers. Hall's attorney has said his client has raised important questions about political influence and accountability.

Sandefer, meanwhile, gave $200,000 on the same day as Hall's donations. He is best known for pushing a higher education overhaul behind his "Seven Solutions" that demand more efficiencies on college campuses. His vision has won support from Perry but has infuriated faculty on the state's largest campuses, where professors say the proposals undermine research.

Sandefer has also donated $85,000 to Empower Texans, which is led by unabashed Straus critic Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the speaker is proud of "conservative results" that include tax cuts, a balance budget and education reforms.

The primary is March 4.

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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