Governor says he’s ready for another run at ethics reform

Published 8:31 pm Friday, February 17, 2017

By Taylor Millard

The push for ethics reform and transparency in Texas is getting a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott named ethics reform legislation one of his emergency items during his State of the State address, meaning legislators can move quickly to pass a bill.

“The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials,” the governor said during his Jan.  31 speech before the Texas Legislature. “That trust is eroded if they perceive that elected officials are acting in anything other than the people’s best interests.”

Each chamber already has seen ethics reform bills introduced. The Senate began debating its measure Tuesday and passed it without opposition.

Senate Bill 14  and House Bill 1283 would do the exact same thing: cause state legislators to lose their office and pensions if they’re convicted of a felony, require legislators to sit out one legislative session before becoming a lobbyist, and make sure legislators reveal if they’ve received any business contracts with school districts, cities or counties.

The bills also would require lobbyists to report whenever at least $57 is spent wining and dining a legislator, executive branch member or a direct family member of a legislator or executive branch member. That’s down from the current $114. Lobbyists would also have to disclose the total value of a shared expenditure if it goes over the $57 threshold.

“Texans expect and deserve a transparent government that serves the people and weeds out politicians serving for any reason other than representing their constituents,” Plano Republican Sen. Van Taylor said at a January news conference announcing his bill. “I have yet to hear a single person who thinks politicians should be entitled to undisclosed, grand scale meals and trips from lobbyists, or that corrupt and criminal politicians sitting in a jail cell really deserve a taxpayer-funded pension.”

Fort Worth Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, author of the House bill, said he is happy to see Abbott acknowledge the importance of the issue.

“Citizens deserve transparency from their government, and elected officials who work for the taxpayers,” Geren wrote on his Facebook page after the legislation was revealed in January. He later wrote he was happy Abbott sees the importance in the issue.

Ethics reform is a bipartisan issue in Austin. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation listed it as part of their Seven for ’17 in its Liberty Action Agenda, although TPPF declined comment on whether it supports any specific bill under consideration. A spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Common Cause told Watchdog that it backs Geren’s and Taylor’s ethics bills.

Major ethics reform legislation failed during the 2015 session because the Texas House wanted so-called dark money provisions requiring — possibly contrary to Supreme Court precedent — nonprofit groups to reveal donor information. Corsicana Republican Rep. Byron Cook took a hardline stance on the disclosures, telling the San Antonio Express-News that ethics reform legislation was dead if “dark money” wasn’t addressed.

The Senate balked at the proposal, and negotiations on a compromise failed. It caused Taylor and Cook to publicly snipe at each other, with Taylor saying the House needed to “step up and do something,” while Cook said the Senate should have accepted the “dark money” compromise.

The 2015 failure wasn’t a surprise to some ethics watchdogs in Texas.

“The Legislature is just not willing to regulate itself, and that’s always been the case,” Democratic lawyer and former Common Cause Executive Director Buck Wood told Texas Tribune at the time. “There was a lot of talk, but I think that’s all it was — talk.”

Neither chamber’s bill includes any such provision this time around, but it could come up later in the session.