The public would know a lot more about which lawmakers are getting wined and dined under legislation filed Monday by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Watson filed three bills that would effectively shut down a giant loophole that allows lobbyists — often under pressure from legislators — to avoid naming names when they fill out their mandatory spending and entertainment reports with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Watson said he’s not casting “aspersions” on anyone but hopes his legislation will increase public confidence in state officials as they interact with lobbyists representing various interests at the Capitol. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed similar legislation, but Watson's bills take the concept a few steps further. They extend the reporting requirements to spending on relatives of state officials while building in protection against future loopholes.
“Anything we can do to assure confidence in that and assure that it’s being done in the appropriate way, we should,” Watson said. “And that is generally best served by better reporting, better disclosure and more knowledge.”
Under current law, lobbyists are supposed to disclose their wining and dining activities to the Texas Ethics Commission. But there’s a catch. They can spend up to $114 on a single legislator or state official — for items such as meals, lodging and transportation — without having to disclose the details to authorities. Anything over that is supposed to be itemized and include the name of the official.
In practice, though, lobbyists get around the threshold by spreading bigger bills out over several lobbyists — creating a sort of buddy system whereby lobbyists band together and each spend $114 or less on a tab that runs far higher. That way the raw figures are reported to the state but no one knows who’s getting entertained, so there’s no meaningful disclosure. Lobbyists often complain privately that legislators pressure them to work around the disclosure because they don't want to be the subject of unflattering news coverage about lavish lifestyles funded by specials interests.
According to a 2013 Texas Tribune analysis, only 3.6 percent of the lobbyist disclosures in 2011 for categories that can be itemized if thresholds are met — including food, booze, gifts and entertainment — had any identifying details. That was down from 5.18 percent in 2005.
One of Watson’s bills, Senate Bill 585, would lower the reporting threshold to expenditures exceeding $50. The senator's bill would also apply the provision to immediate family members of the official.
The legislation also would eliminate any link to per diem payments state legislators receive each day during legislative sessions. Until recently, lawmakers got $150 a day during sessions, but it was raised to $190 last week.
Under current law, lobbyists can spend up to 60 percent of the per diem amount on state officials without triggering the detailed disclosures. So when the Texas Ethics Commission increased the per diem, it had the effect of raising the amount lobbyists can spend without providing any details, from $90 to $114, or 60 percent of $190.
Another Watson bill, SB 586, would ensure detailed disclosure even if multiple lobbyists banded together to get around the new $50 limit. If more than $50 is spent on a state official, all the lobbyists who paid for it would have to provide detailed reporting as if they each had spent the higher amount.
A third bill, SB 587, would ensure the detailed wining and dining reports are made available on the internet.