Vol 30, Issue 21 Print Issue

Some Lawmakers Looking Out for No. 1

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Call it the self-preservation society. When push comes to shove, some members of the Texas Legislature are adamant that their elective office should come with some special protections.

Take the lawmakers who caused a major stir this session by trying to change state law to allow themselves and other elected officials to carry concealed weapons in places where private citizens with such gun licenses may not.

Proponents of the amendment — which was so volatile it ended up killing the entire bill — argued their public positions put them at greater risk than their constituents. Both Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Van Taylor, R-Plano, declared on the House floor that they had received death threats since taking office.

 

Meanwhile, some lawmakers made their own good use of an amendment to an omnibus ethics bill that would’ve forced them to put their personal financial disclosure forms online but allowed them to keep their home addresses private. They kept the amendment, but stripped the provision to put their forms online — leaving only the part that let them delete their home addresses.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, made impassioned remarks on the floor of the upper chamber to explain the change, saying he had two friends who had their children kidnapped because of the parents’ financial resources. The bill passed and is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.

“The more you expose the members here as to who has money and who doesn’t, the more you’re endangering our lives and our children’s lives,” Nichols said. “…It keeps people from sitting up at night trying to figure out who to target and attack them and their families.”

Such arguments didn’t always sit well under the pink dome. State Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, opined during the gun debate that voters sent him to Austin “to take care of my constituents, not to advance my own self-interests.”

“I have to go back to my district and say, ‘We couldn’t pass campus carry, but you know what, I can carry wherever I want,’” he said.  

In the regular legislative session, those self-interests weren’t limited to personal safety; they extended all the way to financial livelihoods.

In late May, lawmakers gave the green light to pension increases for state elected officials — including themselves — despite some vocal opposition from the Legislature’s Tea Party set. At the same time, they held off an effort to ban “double dipping,” the practice of state elected officials who are eligible for retirement collecting both their salary and their pension at once.

“We weren’t sent here for the pensions,” Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said with consternation, offering an amendment that would’ve left lawmakers’ pensions unchanged. Longtime Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, suggested that opponents like Isaac could simply opt out of the program if they found it offensive. 

Longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said legislator self-preservation is nothing new, and that it's a cheap thrill to be "the only gun in the room." 

"Lawmakers always have the unique privilege," he said, "of making rules that apply only to themselves."