Texas animal-welfare advocates add firepower with political action committee

AUSTIN — A group dedicated to animal welfare is upping its game with a political action committee to support candidates who will work for its issues, perhaps giving new hope to efforts such as a push to enforce more humane conditions for tethered dogs statewide.

It’s new territory for the Texas Humane Legislation Network, an education and advocacy organization that has promoted animal issues but has previously limited its involvement in political races to endorsements.

The new PAC will allow it to raise and spend funds for candidates and work to turn out voters on their behalf. It has raised more than $60,000, according to a spokeswoman.

“We’re unsure how quickly we will grow,” said Laura Donahue, executive director of the network and treasurer for its political action committee.

But she said the PAC is crucial to round out the efforts of the group, which she says has a grassroots network of more than 10,000 people.

“We’ve only been able to work at the Capitol,” Donahue said. “To only advocate at the Capitol is like having a dinner party and letting someone else set the guest list. Obviously, it’s much easier for us to educate and lobby and advocate when we have people in office in Austin that are humane-minded and have the same compassion that we do regarding animals.”

Donahue said the effort also will allow the group to balance what has been a “one-sided relationship” with lawmakers and “finally give back to the people that have worked so hard for us.”

“We would ask these legislators to work really hard on our issues. Working on behalf of animals is difficult because animals don’t have money. They don’t have a voice. They themselves can’t walk into the ballot box. They themselves aren’t tied to some sort of lucrative industry,” she said.

“It would be asking them (lawmakers) to cash in their political chips to work super-hard for us at the Capitol, and then when they needed us, when they had to try to work to be re-elected, we couldn’t speak for them.”

The network successfully worked for passage of a bill this year by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, to increase penalties for some violent animal-cruelty offenses. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law.

But the tethering bill, which was carried by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, was killed by a handful of tea-party Republicans in the House who often oppose Davis, a moderate.

The bill aimed to strengthen the current law on tethering and ensure that dogs that are restrained have drinking water, adequate shelter and shade in an area where they can avoid being in standing water. It would have prohibited chains and restraints with weights attached, required tethers to be a certain length and banned restraints that injure dogs.

The current state tethering law is considered unenforceable. It requires 24 hours’ notice for people to comply with requirements, and some are known to temporarily fix violations to avoid citations.

Donahue said during the regular legislative session that the bill would have provided clear standards and prevented a tethering violation from turning into a cruelty case “by allowing officers to intervene before a dog is down and dead.”

After the state law failed, the city of San Antonio approved its own tethering ordinance, but advocates can’t rely on all entities doing the same, said Kathy Davis, a San Antonio board member of the Texas Humane Legislation Network.

“San Antonio was a strong advocate of the bill, and when it didn’t pass, made it happen here,” said Davis, former director of animal care services for the city of San Antonio.

“Sadly, many of the 1,000-plus cities and counties will never pass their own tethering ordinance, so passing this bill is the only way to give thousands of tethered dogs a chance to survive. While fixing the state law doesn’t replace local efforts, amending the state’s tethering law raises the bar for minimum standards,” she said.

The success of the new political action committee will depend largely on how much money it can raise, said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

“It’ll be a question of whether they’ve got a substantial list of contributors and can develop a pool of money to use to get in front of decision-makers,” he said. “All you need is one motivated rich guy. If you’ve got several of those, and then a bunch of regular donors, you can put together a pool of money that lets you get in the door.”

In Texas, Jillson added, “animal rights issues cut a couple of ways.”

Some of the most coveted gubernatorial appointments in the state are to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Jillson pointed out, but there also is resistance to some proposed laws from those who don’t want to be told how to treat their animals.

“They have a love of Texas outdoors and wildlife. The other side of it is the deregulatory ethic in Texas politics, where regulating animal treatment is hard for many Texas conservatives,” Jillson said. “This new PAC is going to be swimming upstream, but there is an element of Texas culture that will be receptive to them.”

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Peggy Fikac is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of her stories here. | [email protected] | @pfikac