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Tea Party Touts Ethics, Transparency Reforms

Tea Party activists are releasing their priorities for the upcoming legislative session on Tuesday, and a top leader says they will call for ethics reform, an end to double-dipping by elected officials and better disclosure on personal financial statements.

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Update, 1:20 p.m.:

A coalition of tea party activists called on the Texas Legislature Tuesday to hold the line on taxes, crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, make deep spending cuts and enact several ethics and transparency reforms.

The Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee expressed support for Gov. Rick Perry’s so-called “budget compact,” aimed at ending budgetary tricks, limiting spending by Constitutional amendment and stopping any tax increases.

But the conservative group took direct aim at Perry elsewhere in its legislative agenda, entitled “Make Texas Strong.” The activists want the Legislature to zero out the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for a series of tax incentive programs championed by Perry as crucial economic development tools.

They favor the elimination of the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Emerging Technology Fund and the event “trust fund” accounts used to lure sporting events and business conferences to Texas.  

“There is no moral support or reason or constitutional limited government reason for keeping these funds in place,” said the coalition leader, JoAnn Fleming. “Central planning through subsidies is not the proper role of government in a free market society … It is time to end this type of corporate welfare in the state of Texas.”

The agenda also calls for an end to the practice of double-dipping by lawmakers. Under an obscure loophole — available to elected officials only — Perry has added nearly $100,000 to his take-home pay by collecting a pension without ever leaving his job.

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said Perry would consider any legislative proposal to end the practice. But she stressed that Perry had paid into the system and met the requirements to receive the benefit.

Fleming shot back that the legality of the provision did not make it right.

“When I talk to people across Texas about the double dipping, that you can actually retire on paper and draw about $9,000 a month in retirement benefits and still get your statewide official pay as governor — it may be legal but I think to the hard working men and women who are just trying to make ends meet, that’s a little bit insulting,” Fleming said.

It’s not clear how many elected officials are taking advantage of the unusual perk. Perry’s double-dipping came to light because he was required to disclose it when he ran for president. The Tea Party group wants the Legislature to require elected leaders to disclose any double-dipping online.

The Tea Party group stressed that it had not vetted the proposals with members of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus. The wide-ranging list of priorities also included a call for:

  • A variety of reforms cracking down on illegal immigration, including an end to so-called “sanctuary cities,” where activists say undocumented immigrants are allowed to live without fear of being apprehended; and ending in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants.
  • Better pay for Department of Public Safety officers so the state can better recruit and retain the men and women who are patrolling the roads and enforcing the laws.
  • A return to “pay-as-you-go” financing for public transportation projects and heavy restrictions on toll roads, in part by requiring them to be entirely self-financed.
  • Passage of a Constitutional Amendment limiting statewide elected officials to two four-year terms in office.

Original Story:

Tea Party activists are releasing their priorities for the upcoming legislative session on Tuesday, and they aren’t confining the list to bread-and-butter items like budgetary austerity and illegal immigration crackdowns.

JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Tea Party Advisory Committee, said her group — a coalition of Tea Party activists from around the state — will also call for ethics reform, an end to double-dipping by elected officials and better disclosure on personal financial statements.

The activists, set to release their agenda at the Capitol on Tuesday morning, will also ask the Legislature to zero-out popular tax incentive programs, including the growing “trust fund” accounts tapped to give tax subsidies to Formula One auto racing, the NFL Super Bowl and various events and conventions held in Texas.

While Republican leaders often claim Tea Party support, Fleming said Tuesday's agenda will challenge many of them — including Gov. Rick Perry — to change their views and practices.

“There are some practices by some statewide leaders that fall way outside of what our priorities are,” Fleming said. “We are hoping they will reconsider those practices.”

Perry has been collecting both his $150,000 salary and a $92,000 annual pension for almost two years. He did it by taking advantage of an obscure loophole that long-serving elected officials have used to “retire” and start collecting pensions without leaving their jobs.

The provision is not available to non-elected officials.

Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, says the arrangement is legal and appropriate, and that he would be foolish not to apply for a retirement benefit for which he is eligible.

"Gov. Perry has paid into the state retirement system over 25 years of state and military service and, compliant with state law, is accessing what he has earned and continues to pay into the system as all state employees do," said Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. "As with all legislation the governor will thoughtfully consider any bill that reaches his desk."

Fleming said the practice should end. At the very least, she said, the Tea Party group wants all double-dippers to disclose their pensions on financial disclosure forms. It currently is not required, so it's impossible to know how many elected officials are doing it.

Perry’s pension came to light after he ran for president because that information was required on federal forms. Similarly, when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ran for the U.S. Senate, he was forced to disclose far more information about his vast wealth than the law required him to reveal as a state candidate.

Fleming says her group will call for state elected officials to adopt new rules for personal financial disclosure that meet or exceed federal standards.

She also said the group will advocate for better transparency.

The Texas Legislature has used a variety of budgetary tricks to balance the books, such as delayed payments and raids on dedicated accounts that aren’t going toward the purposes defined in law.

Lawmakers also withhold documents based on exceptions reserved only for elected officials. Fleming said her group will call for an end to those practices. 

“I think state officials need to stop exempting themselves from transparency,” Fleming said. 

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