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Ethics Commission Bill Forces Tough Votes

UPDATED: Facing a laundry list of record votes, lawmakers tacked on several amendments to an Ethics Commission reform bill on Monday that would strengthen the disclosure rules that govern them and their contributors.

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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.

Updates throughout:

A housekeeping bill to make administrative improvements to the Texas Ethics Commission forced House lawmakers into a lot of tough votes on Monday. Under pressure, and facing a laundry list of record votes, they tacked on several amendments to strengthen the disclosure rules that govern them and their contributors. 

Senate Bill 219 — the Ethics Commission’s so-called sunset reform bill that got tentative approval on Monday with a 133-14 vote — doesn’t have to pass; the agency is constitutionally protected. But it was the primary vehicle left for dozens of ethics bills that House legislators had so far been unwilling or unable to pass.

Among the amendments added were state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s measure to require railroad commissioners to resign from their post to run for other office; state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione’s bill to force lawmakers to report government contracts they or their family members hold more than a 50 percent stake in; and state Rep. Donna Howard’s bill to put lawmakers’ personal financial disclosure forms online with their home addresses redacted. All will have to get the approval of the Senate — which is no sure thing.  

Lawmakers also approved an amendment by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth — a version of which is sitting on Gov. Rick Perry's desk — that would force tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits that fall under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to disclose their donors. Unlike the version on Perry’s desk, Monday’s amendment did not exempt labor unions, which had been a sticking point for some GOP lawmakers.

But they also passed a measure that Jim Clancy, the new chair of the board of the Texas Ethics Commission, said strips out the "only provision in the [reform] bill that makes the agency stronger." 

That amendment, by Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, requires court appeals of Ethics Commission rulings to be tried "de novo," meaning they can take into account evidence collected by the commission, but not the results — from sanctions to rulings — of the investigation. Clancy said that would make the commission's hard work and decisions a waste of time, but supporters of the amendment said it properly curtails the agency's authority. 

“What this bill would do, is once you get to court, it means you must have substantial evidence to win,” said Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston. 

Several controversial amendments failed, some after closer votes than others.

An effort by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, to move the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates state officials, from the Travis County district attorney's office to the attorney general's office failed with a 75-69 vote. In the end, he tacked on an amendment to study whether some of the unit’s duties could be moved to the AG’s office.

An amendment by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, to change the name of the Texas Ethics Commission to the Texas Compliance Commission got voted down overwhelmingly.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Chris Turner’s amendments to update and improve lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms and force them to report pension income never came up for a vote; he pulled them down after laying them out. 

The measure faces one more vote in the House on Tuesday before it returns to the Senate. It’s likely the House amendments will have to be hashed out with Senate lawmakers in conference committee. 

Another bill that got an early OK on Monday night calls for an interim study to review the types of information lawmakers should have to report on their personal financial statements. 

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