Denying Republicans a quorum to enact voting restrictions will cost Texas Democrats north of $1 million, according to the state legislator leading the fundraising effort.
More than 50 Democratic members of the state House fled Austin for Washington, D.C., last Monday, paralyzing the House just as the GOP was advancing sweeping changes in elections during a special session. Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature requires a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers to be present to conduct state business in either chamber.
The price of keeping the Democrats out of Texas through Aug. 7, when the session expires, is expected to be around $1.5 million, state Rep. Armando Walle said in an interview.
Walle said the pair of private charter jets the majority of legislators took to Washington cost more than $100,000, while housing, food and other transportation costs will make up the bulk of other expenses.
Who is paying for the exodus has been an open question, as the legislators fled in a hurry without a fundraising plan.
The charter jets were paid for by wire transfer from the state House Democratic Caucus just hours before takeoff Monday afternoon, after NBC News reported that the legislators were planning to leave town, a caucus staffer with knowledge of the matter said.
Members and staffers have picked up costs on their personal credit cards, too, legislators said.
A large block of hotel rooms at a mid-range D.C. hotel was booked with a House member's personal American Express card, said a legislator, who added that members expect to be reimbursed eventually.
No taxpayer dollars are being spent on the trip, and the House Democratic Caucus and other caucuses within the party, including the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, have used existing funds to cover costs so far, caucus and staff members said.
Republicans argue that the trip is, in fact, costing taxpayers quite a bit of money. A monthlong special legislative session is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $1 million, and with Democrats pledging to remain out of town, no bills are expected to make it to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.
"There is no excuse for their PR stunt, and I join thousands of Texans in demanding that these Democrats get back to work," Abbott said recently, The Associated Press reported.
Late last week, after frenzied early days of meetings with senators on Capitol Hill and Vice President Kamala Harris to advocate for passage of federal voting legislation, the House Democratic Caucus began tapping organizations and individuals for financial support. The caucus also flew up a fundraising staffer from Texas to D.C. to work with legislators.
Walle, the state representative, said the Democratic caucus was still tallying up donations and commitments, which he estimated at $250,000 so far.
The fight for voting rights is personal, he said. Texas has "a long, dark history" of blocking voters of color from getting access to the ballot box — "people like my grandfather, who is 91 and had to pay a poll tax," he said.
Members have been raising money individually, too, and Walle said he has noticed an uptick in small-dollar donations.
"I think just personally, I've probably had five or six hundred of very small donations from working class people who believe in the cause of saving democracy," he said. "That means a hell of a lot to me. That's a shot in the arm to continue this fight."
The group is working to keep things on a budget. Day 3 was the first morning that included hot food for breakfast — earning cheers from the members sick of bagels, the caucus staffer said.
Other groups have also said they will help lawmakers raise money.
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke's voting rights group, Powered by People, said it raised more than a half-million dollars in the first 48 hours of the legislators' trip, with more than 14,000 donations. The average donation was just under $36, the group said, noting that money would be transferred to the legislative caucuses for official use. That includes a $5,000 donation from Texas country music star Willie Nelson.
"In less than three days, Powered by People has raised over $500,000 so far for the Texas Democrats who have taken the fight to our nation's capital in order to protect the right to vote and ensure we overcome this existential threat to our democracy. One hundred percent of what we raise will go to support them for as long as they need and for whatever it takes to win this fight," O'Rourke said last week.
The NAACP is raising money on a promise to support Texas Democrats. It has specifically promised a bail fund for the legislators in case any are arrested while trying to block voting restrictions. Texas law enforcement officers can arrest legislators who fail to show up for work without a good excuse, but they have no authority to act outside the state.
"We bailed out Freedom Riders in the 1960s and will do it again in support of Texas Democrats' quest to combat unprecedented attacks on voting rights," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said last week. "Saving our democracy has no price tag, and we will continue to fight alongside them for as long as we can."
Legislators make $600 a month, as well as a per diem for each day in session. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan has asked the runaway Democrats to return their $221 per diem, which at least one member said didn't appear possible to do.
The Texas Democrats plan to spend the week meeting with national voting rights advocates and labor leaders, election officials and other Democrats as they seek to keep the pressure on Congress to pass federal voting legislation.
After news broke over the weekend that three members of the caucus had tested positive for Covid-19, the events were moved largely online.
Sunday night, the caucus said two more members had tested positive.