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Biggest Ethics Reforms Died on Governor's Desk

A few minor ethics measures passed in the 83rd legislative session. But the real story is what didn’t happen. This story is part of our monthlong 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

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Lawmakers took care of an ethics problem of concern to candidates this year: From now on, political consultants who also lobby the Legislature will have to list the names of their political clients in their lobby filings.

That's of interest to lawmakers and, to some extent, to anyone else who thinks political consultants might have better access to their lawmaker-clients, and thus might have an advantage over other lobbyists and the public in trying to persuade those lawmakers.  

But the story of state ethics laws from this year’s legislative sessions is largely a story about what didn’t happen — of things that might have changed the information available to voters who’ll be making decisions about candidates over the next several months.

Even among the elected officials who are regulated by state ethics laws, support for some changes was strong. The House and Senate — by wide margins (29-2 and 137-8) — approved an omnibus ethics bill that would have tightened the reporting requirements for candidates and organizations involved in politics in Texas, and made it easier to tell the difference between serious campaign finance violations and small, technical mistakes.

But Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, noting that he was throwing out some needed reforms in order to avoid what he considered fatal flaws.

Other political restraints — term limits, restrictions on the use of campaign funds held by former officeholders, disclosure of government contracts with officeholders’ close relatives — never made it through the Legislature. Some stalled: The House approved a so-called “dark money” proposal that would have required nonprofits that participate in political races to reveal the sources of their money, but the Senate wouldn’t go along.

Here’s how the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission summed up the situation in its post-session report on the ethics overhaul:

“Strongly held values, divergent public and individual interests, and a sometimes ruthless political environment make crafting and enacting workable solutions in ethics matters a struggle. Complicated, arcane ethics laws are difficult to understand, much less fix. The stakes are high and the perceived effects of changes on potential winners and losers can polarize discourse and harden positions, making common ground hard to find.”

A few ethics measures did pass, like that law requiring political client lists from campaign consultants who lobby, another that puts a compliance officer and stronger contracting standards in place at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and — because of the governor's line-item veto in the budget — an end to state funding for the public integrity unit at the Travis County district attorney's office, which has jurisdiction over ethics cases involving state officeholders.  Most ethics legislation, however, had a hard time getting past the people it would regulate. And even the omnibus bill was mild medicine once it got past the House and the Senate.

“I think it would have done a little bit,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “But it really was merely a baby step.”

The legislation would have:

• Required lawmakers to file their personal financial disclosure reports electronically;

• Streamlined the process to allow quicker dispensation of minor ethics complaints and forced the agency to report on how many complaints it received and how they were handled;

• Made it easier for the commission to separate reporting mistakes from serious filing violations;

• Required a study of whether criminal ethics complaints involving state officeholders should continue to be referred to the Travis County district attorney or to another office;

• Required state candidates — like their federal counterparts — to tag their political ads with their own name, voice and likeness, with the familiar “I approve this message.”

Perry pointed to a handful of provisions that prompted his veto, including a resign-to-run section that would have required Texas railroad commissioners to leave office when they’re seeking new positions in state government. The idea, according to lawmakers who added that clause, was to stop regulators from hitting up the people they regulate for campaign contributions that would help them get their next jobs.

In the wake of the veto, Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman announced his long-expected run for attorney general in 2014. His colleague, Christi Craddick, first sworn in as a commissioner in January, had been talking to potential supporters about running for comptroller next year, but decided not to.

Perry also objected to allowing the Texas Ethics Commission to set a document-filing fee, saying lawmakers should do that themselves (the legislation would have limited what the commission could charge, but didn’t set a particular fee amount below that limit).

Lawmakers had a list of other changes that didn’t make it into that bill, and anticipated coming back for another try in 2015. They passed legislation that might help, creating a legislative committee that will “make recommendations for substantive changes” to state ethics laws. One difference will be in the state’s highest office: Perry has said he won’t seek re-election, so the next ethics law produced by the Legislature will be presented to the veto pen’s new owner.

“I’m really serious about the interim report,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the House sponsor of the vetoed ethics bill. “But it gets more complicated than the bill we had this time. It gets down into the weeds. It gets much harder.”

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