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Lawmakers Take First Steps Toward Reforming Ethics Commission

The Texas Ethics Commission could undergo major changes in the next legislative session. Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune reports on why some think the state should scrap the commission and start over from scratch.

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The Texas Ethics Commission has two basic jobs. First, it’s the state’s repository for candidates' campaign filings and lobbyist disclosure forms. Second, it's supposed to police the system and make sure people are complying with the rules. State government watchdogs like Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice say the problem is that it only does that first function well.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“It’s getting a little better, but as it gets better the tendency in the Legislature is to clip its wings," McDonald said. "It gets all its money from the Legislature, and I think if overnight it turned into an aggressive enforcement agency, it would likely lose the support and funding that it gets now.”

Enter the Sunset Advisory Commission. It’s the Ethics Commission’s turn to go through the review process given to all state agencies to make sure they're doing their job efficiently. Based on staff recommendations and lawmaker amendments, the Ethics Commission could simply be reauthorized, or it could undergo dramatic changes. Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith thinks scrapping it and starting over might not be a bad idea.

"It was designed to fail from day one," Smith said. 

When someone delivers a complaint to the eight-member ethics board, six of them have to agree to launch an investigation. In practice, that structure has made it impossible to launch an investigation. So Smith would change how the commissioners are selected.

"The people who are appointed to the Ethics Commission come from a list of political insiders that come from the House and the Senate and are appointed by the governor," Smith said. "So there's no way to really get fresh and fair blood on the commission."

Smith believes the battle over what to do with the Ethics Commission will say a lot about whether Texas wants to improve on its ethics grade or not. He got his first look into the legislative mindset when the Sunset Advisory Committee released its staff recommendations on what changes to make to the Ethics Commission. Recommendations were voiced at a hearing Tuesday.

“In our review we also note that the ethics system in Texas is based on disclosure of financial information," said Karl Spock, the Sunset Commission's project manager for the Ethics Commission review. "Our recommendations focus on promoting accurate and timely disclosure of that information. And fair enforcement of disclosure laws."

The staff report suggested more timely disclosure of campaign finances, additional money to upgrade software and reporting systems, and — perhaps the item that got lawmakers the most excited — a change in what violations are called. Currently, every offense is called an ethics violation. Whether it’s a paperwork error — or an accepted bribe.

“It is two weeks before the election and someone pulls up one of your old campaign finance statements where it determines that you have left off the occupation of someone who has contributed to your campaign," said Ethics Commission Vice Chairman Jim Clancy. "They then call a press conference and then wave the document before the public and say, this person is an ethics violator.”

So future campaign opponents won’t be able to use minor infractions to label incumbents as ethics violators. How is that supposed to help the public?

Smith said it helps because, as he told the Sunset Commission on Tuesday, letting the minnows go will allow the state to focus on the sharks.

“The filters are clogged; the mesh is too fine," Smith said. "And I think what we’re saying, and what we’ve said to the press, and we’ll continue to say is, it’s time for an adjustment as to what it is we’re catching in the seams."

Smith and other watchdog groups will now spend the next few months crafting a Sunset bill that will be filed in the 2013 legislative session. The key there will be fighting off attempts by lawmakers and special interest groups that aren’t interested in making any ethics laws stronger.

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State government Campaign finance State agencies Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature