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Transparency Bills Draw Strange Bedfellows

This session’s effort to make state government more transparent and ethical — spearheaded by some of the Legislature’s most conservative members and its most liberal ones — has attracted the strangest of bedfellows.

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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.

In Texas, there’s nary an issue that aligns the far left with the far right. But this session’s effort to make state government more transparent and ethical — spearheaded by some of the Legislature’s most conservative members and its most liberal ones — has attracted the strangest of bedfellows.

You’ve got ultra-conservative Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, partnering with outspoken Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, on efforts to force lawmakers to report the government contracts they or their family members have.

Liberal Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, is cosponsoring legislation with Tea Party-approved Reps. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, and Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, to get elected officials who run for higher office — i.e., Gov. Rick Perry — to reimburse the state for expenses for their security detail.

And Michael Quinn Sullivan’s influential Empower Texans has been making robocalls into the districts of Republican legislators who the conservative activist sees as standing in the way of efforts to expand reporting on lawmakers’ personal financial disclosure forms.

A glance down the list of the roughly three dozen ethics bills filed this session shows several authored by so-called establishment Republicans; most were filed by Democrats and recently arrived social conservatives, often partnering together.

Sullivan acknowledged it’s rare for him to be on the same side of any issue with Democrats. One of the only other places it happens is in criminal justice reform, he said, where the two sides get to the same end result via very different paths — social justice for liberals, versus dollars and cents for conservatives.

But unlike criminal justice reform, he said, with ethics reform, the motives are largely the same. “Whether you’re on the far left or the far right ideologically, it’s all coming from the same place,” he said. “You’re for the same goal, which is to make sure the voters have the maximum amount of information.”

Jim Henson, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project, said government accountability falls into the “weird Venn diagram of common space that you don’t get very much” in the state Legislature. But he’s not so sure the parties share the exact same motives.

Conservatives approach transparency issues because they believe systemic corruption adheres to government, he said, while liberals approach it because they want to make sure that something necessary for a fair society functions properly.

“There’s more of an inherent suspicion on the side of conservatives, and I think they’d agree with that, than you see from the Democratic side, which has more faith in the ability of government to proactively do good things,” Henson said.

But Henson added that regardless of motive, “when you have a rare moment of agreement between those sides, it’s good that people try to make the most of it.”

Capriglione, a freshman who was lambasted by veteran Republicans in the first hearing for his government contracts bill, HB 524, said he didn’t go out seeking Democrats to partner with. It just happened naturally.

Texas Democrats, who are the minority at the state level, and Texas Republicans, who are the minority at the federal level, each want to keep the other side honest, he said. They also look internally, he added, and they know if they don’t practice what they preach, they’ll be labeled “hypocrites.”

“When you look at school finance, at private property rights, it’s easy to get to a partisan answer,” he said. “Transparency is one of those few items where it doesn’t matter what party you’re in. Even if you’re partisan, you’re worried about the other party’s power, and what they’ll do with that power.”

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