High Hopes for Ethics Reform, but It's Early

Gov. Greg Abbott's full-throated embrace of ethics reform, a rarity under the Capitol dome, is breathing new life into the issue of years of failed efforts. But changing the status quo remains very much a work in progress.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Gov. Greg Abbott; and state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano.

As the first Texas governor in more than two decades to declare ethics reform a legislative “emergency,” Republican Greg Abbott is breathing rare life into efforts to increase transparency and reduce conflicts of interest in the Texas Legislature. 

Lawmakers are proposing everything from curbs on wining and dining by special interests to a five-year ban on lobbying by former legislators, and hopes are running high that this year — finally — some reforms will pass.

“The governor’s leadership is a huge difference,” said Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who is spearheading Abbott’s reforms in the Senate. “The governor has really changed the kind of conversation that I'm having about ethics this session."

But changing business as usual at the Capitol remains very much a work in progress, and some of  the specific ideas Abbott campaigned on — particularly those addressing financial conflicts of interest — are likely to change significantly as they get thrown into the legislative meat grinder. 

Chief among them: giving citizens the right to sue elected officials who ignore laws designed to stop legislators from voting on bills from which they stand to benefit financially.

That idea was front and center in Abbott’s “We The People” reform plan, which contains sweeping proposals to cut down on self-dealing and abuse of power. Abbott wants to dramatically tighten up conflict-of-interest provisions, and make legislators civilly and criminally liable for violating them.

The issue arose on the campaign trail when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis faced criticism for legislative votes and actions impacting public sector entities, such as the North Texas Tollway Authority, which hired her to provide legal work.

As it stands, lawmakers almost never recuse themselves from legislative votes, because the definition of a conflict of interest is broad and there’s no meaningful enforcement mechanism if they violate it.

It was perfectly legal for payday lender Gary Elkins, a Republican state representative from Houston, to ask his fellow members to reject tough regulations of his industry a few years ago so “little guys like me can comply" with the law. Nor were any laws broken when former Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, founder and CEO of the largest homeowners association management company in the country, authored the state’s first comprehensive HOA statute. Ditto for Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has taken part in debates and cast votes on legislation supported or opposed by his employer, Locke Lord LLP, which has a big team of lobbyists in Austin.

In the vision Abbott articulated on the campaign trail, lawmakers would step aside from voting if they stand to gain from any “employment, contracts, subcontracts, contingency fees, referral fees, or agreements.” And his plan endeavored to “provide a sufficient enforcement mechanism to ensure that legislators who have a conflict are deterred from improperly voting on issues that implicate them directly.”

Abbott proposed making it a crime to violate the recusal statute, and he wants to let citizens directly file lawsuits — and collect damages — against legislators who run afoul of the restrictions. 

Abbott also would require members to file written notice before introducing or sponsoring measures supported or opposed by close relatives or spouses who are registered lobbyists. That has issue spilled out repeatedly at the Capitol, most recently when the daughter of House Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, gave up an education lobbying contract after critics said it was a conflict of interest.

The tough conflict-of-interest provisions Abbott advocated haven’t made it into the major ethics bills filed so far, and both Taylor and the state representative pushing the reform legislation in the House, Republican Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, say they’re struggling with the enforcement mechanisms the governor laid out.

“It's an easy thing to say but it's hard to do,” said Taylor. “We have had some ideas of how we can strengthen that.”

Likewise, Geren said the remedy as conceived by Abbott could spark "silly" lawsuits.

“I think the original language is probably too broad and would encourage that,” Geren said. “I don’t think that’s what the governor intends. It’s certainly not what I intend, but I do believe we need to tighten up the standards, where members should recuse themselves.’’ Ethics expert Buck Wood, who helped draft ethics reform four decades ago after the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, also said allowing citizen lawsuits would require a constitutional amendment, which isn't being contemplated at this point.

Abbott has been working closely with Geren and Taylor and is not wedded to a single approach, the governor's spokeswoman said.

“Governor Abbott made his commitment to ethics reform clear by designating it as one of his emergency items, and he looks forward to working with the Legislature to strengthen the faith and trust that Texans have in their state government,” said Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

Abbott is the first governor since 1991 — the first year of the Ann Richards administration — to use his emergency powers to put ethics reform on the legislative fast track. Taylor said the governor’s advocacy has had a huge impact on lawmakers, who have shown reluctance in the past to increase transparency or change the status quo.

Last session, modest efforts to enhance financial disclosure requirements never got off first base, while lawmakers rejected legislation to ban elected officials from doing what former Gov. Rick Perry did — using an obscure law that allows longtime politicians to double dip their salary and pension.

Taylor, who has been pushing ethics reforms for several years, recalled that in the past, lawmakers have tried to talk him out of it, telling him, “Hey, you don’t really want to do this, do you?”

“This is the first time I've ever had senators coming to me and other legislators coming to me and say, 'Hey ... can we make this more transparent, can we add this to the disclosure piece, can you tighten up this over here,' and so I'm definitely, definitely seeing some traction at this point,” Taylor said.

Among the measures the senator is pushing this year are a five-year cooling-off period for legislators who want to become lobbyists. Another bill would take lucrative pension benefits away from lawmakers who are convicted of serious crimes resulting from their official duties. Right now, a legislator with 20 years of service could collect $64,400 a year for life, even if he or she goes to jail for abusing power.

“I never had anybody say, 'Hey, if you ever get convicted of a felony, be sure you keep your pension,'” Taylor said. “Everybody I've ever spoken to in my district supports these basic, common-sense ethics reforms.”