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For Lawmakers, Ethics Reform is Complicated

It's easier, it seems, for lawmakers to regulate others than to regulate themselves. Ethics and transparency legislation has had a bumpy ride in the current legislative session.

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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 hard for the wolves to regulate the wolves, isn’t it?

This week — the last one of the 20-week legislative session — lawmakers will consider the ethics, in campaigns and in office, of themselves and their colleagues. The legislation in question would keep the Texas Ethics Commission going, and with that as the primary subject matter, everything that might be considered by that agency, or that says “ethics” in a way the lawyers approve, could be up for consideration.

Not that lawmakers want to consider it. Transparency is the buzzword of the moment, and lawmakers got to Austin in January promising all sorts of disclosures that would shine the light on conflicts and curiosities, and punishments for bad behavior. Much of that was jettisoned between then and now.

“They’re not interested in this,” Randall “Buck” Wood, a former state official and elections and ethics expert who now practices law, said Thursday at a TribLive forum hosted by The Texas Tribune. “It’s not that they’re all crooks. It’s not that they all have conflicts of interest. The more information they have to put out there, the less they like it. It’s not necessarily that it’s going to be bad or that it’s going to be used by their opponent. They just see it as a problem, as a burden.”

Anticipating the meager demand for disclosure and enforcement, lawmakers have already set up a study — to be done after the legislative session — on changes that might be made to improve transparency and compliance in the public arena.

The floor debate on the commission, assuming it isn’t derailed like so many other issues in these final days, could be interesting. Ideas that slipped away in other legislation could return in the form of amendments.

For instance, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, a freshman, proposed requiring legislators’ family members to report business contracts they have with public entities. It passed out of a committee, but not in time to get through the full House and proceed to the Senate. He’ll try it again as an amendment to the ethics bill.

“This was a session of missed opportunities,” Capriglione said at TribLive. “I think the environment is such that it’s difficult to work on those things and really make changes.”

One bill that is sitting on the governor’s desk would require some tax-exempt organizations to reveal the names of their donors if the organizations do political work. It doesn’t include labor unions, which might be enough to merit a veto. Its authors have promised to try to attach another version — with unions, this time — to the ethics bill, just in case.

Speaking of the governor, remember that moment in the last presidential race when he revealed that he was collecting his state pension, even though he is still on the state payroll? That tidbit rolled in long after it was clear that someone else would get the Republican nomination. But Texas lawmakers didn’t miss it. Legislation that would require disclosures of those pensions fell short. That will be an amendment.

Lawmakers turned away proposals to tighten their personal financial disclosures — stricter federal standards were suggested by some as a good model — and to put those reports online where voters can see them.

The Senate overwhelming approved a bill that would have limited the terms of statewide elected officials, promoted by some as a way to keep the public pipes clear of cronyism, and by others as a way to clear long-timers from the top of the government organization charts to make way for ambitious people below. The House spiked that one this week, as it has in previous years. Not everybody listed that one with other ethics bills, but it was sold that way.

The biggest modern changes in good government laws in Texas followed the Sharpstown bank stock scandal in 1971 and a scandal in the early 1990s that illuminated the literal and figurative canoodling between officeholders and special interests at that time. The first produced sweeping open government laws. The second produced the ethics commission.

“It’s something they don’t want to do and they only do it when they have to,” Wood said. “And that’s when it becomes a real major public issue in the state.”

Is the public asking for changes?

“No,” he said. “There’s not that kind of pressure right now.”

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature