Published 8:21 am Thursday, January 26, 2017

Special to The Leader

After defeat of a similar measure in the House last session, a group of Senators joined by the Lt. Governor announced at a Wednesday press conference the filing of a sweeping ethics reform package that they believe has broad support from lawmakers this session. The bill, SB 14, filed by Plano Senator Van Taylor and joined by 20 Senate co-authors, would take aim at officials who step out of office and immediately become lobbyists, tighten lobbyist reporting requirements, and shine light on conflicts of interests involving officials and state contracts.   Taylor said the time is ripe for this legislation. “The bill we are filing today in the House and Senate earned overwhelming support last session, and there is no excuse to cheat the voters out of meaningful ethics reform.”

The bill’s first provision would remove criminally convicted officials from office and prohibit them from receiving a pension from their time in public service. “The thought of a criminal elected official sitting in a jail cell, getting a pension paid for by the very taxpayers that they have betrayed is just reprehensible,” said Taylor.   The second provision would require officials to disclose any contracts or other financial arrangements with state agencies they may have from their private business lives.

Other provisions pertain to lobbyists. One would solidify the line between lobbyists and elected officials by making officials wait one full legislative session before they can become registered lobbyists.  It would also prohibit officials from serving while they are registered as lobbyists. The bill would further seek to increase transparency on interactions between lobbyists and officials by cutting in half the reporting threshold for gifts and entertainment and would end the practice of “ticket splitting”, where multiple lobbyists pay for an expense in order to stay below the reporting threshold.

Also Wednesday, Dallas Senator Royce West held a press conference calling for more diversity on the University of Texas Board of Regents. The governor appointed candidates to fill three vacancies on the board, but none were African American. “I’m compelled to express concern that the Governor’s Office was not able to identify a single African American to raise to the level of being nominated to serve on the board of the UT System,” said West.

In its 126 year history, said West, only three African Americans have served on the UT Board of Regents, the last in 2013. Senator Borris Miles of Houston, who joined West at the press conference, said this isn’t about opposing the three nominated candidates. “Texas is one of the most diverse states in the country,” he said. “All we want to do is make sure the university system looks like Texas.”

Finally, Dallas Senator Don Huffines filed a bill to expand access to virtual school to kindergartners, first and second graders. Huffines said the 2007 law that created a system for accredited distance learning in the public education system only applies to 3rd through 12th graders, and he wants every student in Texas to have access to this option.  “Texas students deserve the best education opportunities we can provide them, and whether that happens in a brick-and-mortar public or private school, behind a desk at home, or a virtual [school] student, I’m going to fight for them to have that choice,” he said at the Wednesday press conference.

According to the Texas Education Agency, students enrolled in virtual schools are considered Texas public school students. Virtual schools must meet state curriculum standards and classes must be taught by certified teachers. There are currently six accredited virtual academies operating in Texas.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, January 30 at 2 p.m.