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Analysis: Lawmakers Send an Ethics Message, Intentional or Not

Some of the Legislature's early actions indicate some ambivalence about the agencies and people who enforce state ethics laws.

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The state’s new lawmakers have been in Austin for less than a month, but they are beginning to leave some first impressions.  

What are they trying to tell us?

The proposed state budget from the Texas Senate omits funding for the public integrity unit at the Travis County district attorney’s office. That’s the unit that prosecutes ethics violations by state officials.

The Senate budget cuts funding for the Texas Ethics Commission — the place that collects reports from candidates, lobbyists and other interests. And it’s the place that enforces state laws governing the behavior of public servants as well as the behavior of the people paid to try to shape the decisions those public servants make.

Dan Patrick, the new lieutenant governor, published a list of “advisers” — people who he said will have his ear on matters of policy during his time in office. Not all of them are donors. Not all of them are lobbyists. It is not unusual for people like these to petition their government. But it is peculiar to see a high government official publicly naming his preferred petitioners. Patrick supplemented that citizen advisory council later, forming another populated by grassroots activists and Tea Party leaders.

There are some signs of restraint here and there. House Bill 972, offered up by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would unlink the per diem pay intended to cover legislators’ expenses and the limits on how much those legislators can be wined and dined without having their names revealed. The legislation would lower the trigger amount to $50. Right now, it’s $90, and the Texas Ethics Commission will vote next month on a proposed increase that would raise the name-that-legislator trigger to $114.

It’s legal to spend more than that, but the legislator being entertained has to be named when the line is crossed. Those secret suppers are useful to lawmakers, because nobody knows for sure who they had dinner with and what they talked about. And they are good for the lobbyists who pick up the tab, too; their competitors can’t see who they are trying to persuade.

The House’s proposed budget includes full funding for the Ethics Commission, but it also includes an obstacle for those local prosecutors seeking public integrity money. They are not out of trouble in either chamber.

Each brick in this particular wall came with an explanatory note.

Start with those prosecutors.

The Senate is dominated by Republicans, as you know, and Republicans are particularly exercised at the moment with local prosecutors in Austin. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg is in the last two years of what she says will be her last term in office. In 2013, she was arrested for drunken driving, convicted and did jail time. The videos of her arrest and booking at the county jail pretty much ensured that, but she refused to leave office.

Then-Gov. Rick Perry insisted that she quit, saying he would veto funding for her public integrity unit if she didn’t. She is still there, and he did veto the funding; a special prosecutor — not from Lehmberg’s office — took the case to a grand jury and obtained two indictments against Perry.

The former governor and many in his party — and in the other party, to be honest — think the charges are pretty thin. Republicans in particular think this is a partisan fight generated from the government of a liberal county in a very conservative state. Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said she doesn’t think the public integrity operation ought to be in that office at all, and she didn’t include any funding for it anywhere else.

They don’t trust the prosecutors and might not fund them.

Patrick’s councils were presented as a new officeholder’s attempt to reach out to the people who have to live under the laws passed by the Legislature. It might function that way, but it came off as a directory of the most special of the special interests in the eyes of the new lieutenant governor.

And the Senate’s funding cut for the Ethics Commission? Nelson told the Austin American-Statesman that it is not a cut at all — that the agency had $3.5 million in one-time funding in the last budget that is not included in this one. She was not happy about the crowing from foes of the Ethics Commission who praised the cuts. The House’s budget, on the other hand, left most of that money in place to fill other needs at the agency.

These proposals are not at all what state lawmakers will be voting on when it comes time to approve a budget in May — just the starting point. The Legislature has plenty of time to pay for the agency that regulates ethics and campaign matters, to find someone who will enforce those laws when they are broken, to open the doors to anyone who wants to advise their lawmakers — whether those are lobbyists or not, sitting with the preferred petitioners or not.

The first moves of this legislative session on ethics matters could be unrelated to each other.

But small things add up, and it is possible to send a message about the ethical culture of a place whether the players mean to or not. 

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