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Time to Take a Look at Cutting Ethical Corners

It's been a long time since the Legislature took a good, hard look at its ethics laws and its own practices. With the Texas Ethics Commission up for review, a restive electorate and a herd of new lawmakers, they have a golden opportunity.

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Bidness as Usual

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

It’s been 20 years since a scandal-driven Texas Legislature overhauled the state’s ethics laws. Gently put, officeholders have figured out how to cut some corners.

A small example to make the point: They can’t convert campaign funds to personal use, but they can use those funds to rent cars used in their political campaigns. Rules are made to be broken, right? They just have to be reasserted, or revised, from time to time.

Maybe it’s time. The Texas Ethics Commission is up for a periodic legislative review.

The current Legislature is packed with freshmen and sophomores who haven’t been around long enough to go native — to do business like lawmakers who have grown accustomed to cutting ethical corners. And some of the lawmakers who quit or who got beat or were spooked by challengers in the last election cycle were in harm’s way because of the blurry lines between their official and personal business.

One was billing the state and his campaign accounts for the same travel expenses. Another’s spouse was a consultant for a program overseen by the legislator’s committee.

Texas lawmakers set up some tough laws to govern themselves, but they haven’t invested much money or interest in enforcement.

In practice, a lot of the enforcement of ethics comes in the off-season, when the opposition researchers for political challengers go through incumbents’ records and reports to find the nasty little bits that animate their election attacks.

This happens periodically. Two scandals in the 1970s — the Sharpstown stock scandal in Texas and the Watergate scandal in Washington — resulted in a mountain of ethics and campaign reforms, statewide and nationally. Investigations of Congressional and legislative bribery spurred reforms in the 1980s.

Texas lawmakers playing footsie with lobbyists — figuratively and literally — sparked the last major set of reforms in the early 1990s.

More recently, lawmakers, lobbyists and others inside the bubble of state government have been preoccupied with the absence of clear boundaries between professional and legislative business. In addition to the sunset legislation of the Ethics Commission — a periodic state agency review that is an obvious vessel for new ethics laws — legislators have filed bills promised in their last campaigns.

Two freshmen — Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Mary González, D-Clint — propose forcing lawmakers to disclose the government clients of their personal businesses. Senator Wendy Davis, Democrat of Fort Worth, jumped to file companion legislation in the Senate; her political opponent last year tried to make an issue of the local government business done by her private law firm.

It’s easy to think of a political group — the Legislature, the city council, the school board, the utility district — as inherently corrupt. Sometimes, they do their best to prove it. That is not really the problem here. The problem is that under the current ethics laws it’s very hard to prove the opposite. It can be difficult to tell an honest lawmaker from a lawmaker who is on the make.

Start, if you can, with the assumption that most people in public office are honest and are serving with the best of intentions, even if you disagree with their politics. Assume they are reasonably intelligent. And think about what happens when you give intelligent people a set of rules. Over time, they figure out the best way to read the rules, to stay within the law while also taking every legal advantage.

Over time, things get out of balance. It might be that most people are following the laws on the books, but that the everyday level of questionable behavior is out of hand.

For instance, Texas requires judges to grant continuances to lawyers who, as legislators, can’t make it to court because they’re occupied with official state business. Makes sense, right? You don’t want to lose your lawsuit because your lawyer is also a senator who was voting on something instead of coming to the courthouse.

But it didn’t take long for somebody smart to hire a legislator/lawyer to take advantage of the time delays automatic continuances can provide. Or for a legislator or two to turn that into an easy way to make money.

Lawmakers came back and limited those continuances. They were legal and widespread, but poisonous — something that might turn up in their campaigns.

There’s more there.

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State government Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature