Records show majority of Texas Democrats who broke quorum never paid back per diem

Nick Natario Image
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Most TX Democrats who pledge to return per diem have not, records show
Despite pledging not to accept per diem money during the quorum break this summer, ABC13 has learned that a few Democrats have returned the money.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Despite pledging not to accept per diem money during the quorum break this summer, ABC13 has learned that only a few Democrats have returned the money.

This summer, the majority of Texas House members broke quorum and threw two special sessions into chaos. A large group traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers over voting legislation.

While there, the many pledged not to accept special session per diem. But it turns out, the majority of them did.

The state comptrollers office said the money was automatically placed in lawmakers' accounts. Data shows it was about $12,000 in per diem from July and August. In order to not accept the per diem, lawmakers had to return the money to the comptroller's office.

In July, more than 50 House Democrats broke quorum. Data obtained by ABC13 shows only nine returned the money, including just one from the Houston area.

The nine who returned the money are State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D - Dallas), State Rep. James Talarico (D - Round Rock), State Rep. Donna Howard (D - Austin), State Rep. Julie Johnson (D - Farmers Branch), State Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D - Brownsville), State Rep. Armando Martinez (D - Weslaco), State Rep. Evelina Ortega (D - El Paso), State Rep. Roberto Guerra (D - McAllen) and State Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D - Houston).

Anchia, Guerra, Lucio III, Ortega, Rosenthal and Talarico paid back $5,304. Johnson gave back $4,862. Howard and Martinez paid back $4,420.

Rosenthal explained to ABC13 why he returned the money.

"It was my feeling that that per diem is to cover our expenses when we're away from home, when we're doing state business in August, or wherever we're doing state business," Rosenthal explained. "In this case, it was a very political thing. The truth is most of our expenses were being covered by others."

The quorum break lasted until Aug. 23. Despite this, nearly all Democrats kept the per diem in August.

Records ABC13 obtained show only one Democrat, Howard, gave $4,199 per diem money back to the comptroller's office. A second lawmaker gave per diem money back in August, but it was a Republican. State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R - Waco) paid the state back $3,315.

More than a dozen Houston-area Democrats did not return the money. Those members are: Rep. Alma Allen, Rep. Ann Johnson, Rep. Armando Walle, Rep. Gene Wu, Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., Rep. Hubert Vo, Rep. Jarvis Johnson, Rep. Mary Ann Perez, Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, Rep. Ron Reynolds, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Rep. Shawn Thierry, and Rep. Ana Hernandez. Our calls and emails were not returned from those lawmakers.

ABC13 did hear from Rep. Christina Morales, who sent the following statement:

"The expense of a special session, well in excess of a million dollars according to the Legislative Budget Board, came under scrutiny when we chose to fight for the basic voting rights that keep our Democracy alive. When subsequent special sessions were called to restrict women's reproductive rights, attack transgender children, and to gerrymander Texas districts, there was no concern for the cost. In spite of three special sessions, we stand here today with no solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. The millions that were spent on these special sessions did nothing to improve the lives of everyday Texans.

We broke the quorum because the very foundation of our democracy was at risk. Our only option was to leave the state and urge federal leaders to pass national voting rights legislation, so we spent the month working for our constituents in Washington, D.C. Breaking quorum resulted in out-of-pocket expenses in excess of our per diem, funding that supports our jobs to represent our constituents, but it was worth the cost to save our Democracy and protect the constituents of HD145."

During the quorum break, Johnson and State Rep. Jessica Gonzalez (D - Dallas) left the country and attended a wedding in Portugal. Records show Johnson returned per diem, but Gonzalez did not. According to records, Gonzalez received $12,155 in per diem during July and August.

Gonzalez also sent ABC13 the following statement:

"It is still my intention to return portions of the per diem I received this summer from the Texas House of Representatives. I am currently in the process of returning this after encountering difficulties with banking information. In previous correspondence with the House business office, my office was informed we had until the end of the year to return per diem payments."

"That's preposterous. If you're going to walk out and go stage a protest in D.C. and then catch a flight to Portugal, if you're collecting state money, you're going to have to a lot of trouble from your constituents," State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R - Houston) said. "That's at least my prediction."

Rice University political science professor, Mark Jones told ABC13 he believes the quorum break and per diem will be used against Democrats during next year's election. However, with the newly approved legislative maps, he said it doesn't create much competition for Democrats, and the only contested local race might be Ann Johnson.

Texas lawmakers received $221 a day during the special sessions, despite the quorum breaks. There's no rule or law that forbids lawmakers from accepting per diem during a quorum break.

For more updates on this year's special session, Nick Natario on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

NOTE: An earlier version incorrectly identified Howard as traveling to Portugal, instead of Johnson. The article has been updated to correctly reflect the lawmaker involved.