Greg Abbott hasn’t talked much about ethics reform since he got elected Texas governor, but the newly minted chief executive is expected to make a renewed push for it Tuesday during his State of the State address.
With former Gov. Rick Perry now gone from office and a new cast of characters in the Legislature, advocates for reform say Abbott has a rare chance to help spearhead improved disclosures and reduce conflicts of interest in the often opaque and ethically challenged corridors of the Texas Capitol.
Lobbyist Jack Gullahorn, who represents the lobbying industry as president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, said he sees a “perfect storm” brewing for reform because of various ethics controversies and renewed interest among state leaders.
He mentioned in particular the scandal that brought down the governor of Virginia, the indictments of sitting House speakers in New York and Alabama, and the contracting controversy in the Texas health and human services arena.
“I think because of the focus put on ethics in general by what’s going on nationally and the resolve of at least some of the leadership to keep that from happening in Texas, there is certainly a heightened opportunity for ethics review,” Gullahorn said.
Abbott, a Republican, will give his State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature at 11 a.m. Central in the House chamber.
During the 2014 campaign, he proposed sweeping reforms, calling for putting sharp enforcement teeth into weak conflict-of-interest rules. He also proposed giving residents standing to sue when lawmakers blur ethical lines by failing to disclose potentially lucrative deals that intersect with their public roles or when they vote on bills that impact their personal bottom line.
“They are supposed to be working for you, not their own bank accounts,” Abbott said a little over a year ago in a speech outlining his proposals.
Among other things, Abbott is expected Tuesday to urge the Legislature to pass new rules that would require lawmakers to disclose any contracts they have with public entities.
The issue became a major point of contention in the governor’s race, when Abbott accused his Democratic opponent, then-Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, of profiting off her service in the Legislature through contracts between her law firm and public entities. Davis said her work for public entities, including the North Texas Tollway Authority, did not conflict with her role as a senator.
It’s one of several ethics bills up for consideration this year in the Legislature, so Abbott will have no shortage of proposals to pick from. Among the proposals so far this session:
Loophole Closure: State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, have both filed legislation aimed at closing the giant loophole that allows most lobbyist wining and dining to stay under the radar.
Under current law, lobbyists don’t have to reveal whom they’re entertaining as long as they spend less than $114 on a single legislator or state official. But even when the total goes higher, they can just get a lobbyist friend or two to pick up part of the tab so that they all remain below the threshold.
Both legislators would lower the reporting threshold to anything over $50. Watson’s three bills would take it a few steps further by applying the reporting requirements to spending on close family members of the state official and requiring lobbyists to report even if they band together in an effort to spend more than $50 on a single person.
More Online Disclosure: At a time when it seems like everything is on the internet, the Legislature continues to resist the posting of lawmakers' personal financial statements online. While The Texas Tribune requests them from the Texas Ethics Commission and posts them online, there is a lag time after the lawmakers hand in their annual forms or make amendments.
Curbing Contracting Abuses: Reports of no-bid contracting abuses at the Health and Human Services Commission prompted state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to file legislation that would strengthen oversight of state contracting.
Nelson's legislation, Senate Bill 353, would require an authority figure in a state agency to sign off on any contract valued at more than $1 million. In addition, the legislation would require public disclosure of all no-bid contracts, contract training programs with a focus on ethics and the disclosure of any potential conflict of interests for agency employees involved in contracting.
Abbott has already endorsed the proposal and has called on agencies to adhere to the guidelines in it before the bill even passes.
Double Dipping: Perry made dubious headlines during the 2012 presidential race when he disclosed that he was drawing more than $90,000 a year in state pension benefits while simultaneously collecting his $150,000-a-year salary — a perk only longtime elected officials can receive.
In 2013, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, filed legislation to shut down the loophole, but it went nowhere in the Texas House. With Perry out of office and Abbott expressing support for banning the practice, Turner is trying again.
Lawmaker Pensions: Speaking of pensions, state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, wants to make them considerably less generous. Under current law, legislators can rack up huge pensions even though they are paid a part-time salary of $7,200 a year. For example, a Texas lawmaker with 30 years of service would be eligible to draw up to $96,600 a year in retirement.
Under Simpson’s House Bill 131, lawmakers would not be eligible to accrue benefits after 12 years, effectively capping the maximum pension at $30,000 a year under his formula.
“This would reduce the incentive to serve for less than the best reasons,” said Simpson, who has opted out of the lucrative system because he thinks it’s wrong. “You could serve for 20 years if the people wanted to keep re-electing you, but you could only collect a pension for 12 years worth of service.”
Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Jack Gullahorn has been a donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.