Bidness as Usual

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

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, each filed legislation on Thursday that would require personal financial statements submitted to the Texas Ethics Commission to be made available online.

Senate Bill 417, filed by Ellis, would require the Ethics Commission to make financial disclosures available no later than 10 business days on the commission’s website. The bill would also require the commission to group these filings together by office sought and/or being held.

“I filed this legislation because I believe in transparency, open government and technology," Ellis said in an email. "Legislators already disclose this information, and campaign finance reports are available online, so it should not be difficult to make this happen.”

In addition to requiring that disclosures be made available online, Howard's House Bill 1074 would also remove a portion of the law that excluded the disclosure of financial activity by a candidate’s dependent children if the candidate had no direct control over the activity. Also, the bill would require the identification of “any other source of earned or unearned income, including a pension, individual retirement account, or other retirement plan.”

In a news release, Howard said that her bill "addresses concerns about potential gaps in reporting requirements with the goal of strengthening public confidence in state government and its officers." She added that "Texans should not have to rely on the media or other sources to gather and post information that, by the law's intent, is designed to be available to the public.”

The absence of pension information on state disclosures gained attention after Gov. Rick Perry's failed run for president. His federal financial disclosure statement noted his official retirement through the Employee Retirement System. Under current state rules, lawmakers that have retired through the ERS are not required to disclose pension collections on the state disclosures.

HB 1074 also creates an interim committee to “study and review the procedures and effects of the filing of personal financial statements.” HB 1075, also filed by Howard, would provide details on the makeup of that committee. The bill would create an 11-member committee comprising five members appointed by the lieutenant governor, five by the speaker of the House and one by the presiding officer of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Efforts to push personal financial disclosures online are not new, and they aim to implement a recommendation pitched during the Ethics Commission’s sunset review last year. A Sunset Advisory Commission staff report recommended that a better system for electronically filing personal financial statements should be instituted, and the report also suggested they be made available online. As reported by the Austin American-Statesman last June, the Sunset Advisory Commission unanimously rejected the portion of the proposal regarding online availability, instead acknowledging that there are “other areas in personal financial statement reporting that need to be addressed.”

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