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Analysis: Shock Therapy From an Ethics Reformer

A frustrated regulator's letter suggesting the state drop enforcement of its ethics laws might spark some legislative action. That would be a gift for Gov. Greg Abbott, who wants ethics to be a signature issue this session.

Legislators listen as Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State speech on Feb. 17, 2015.

It’s hard to kick a whole legislature in the pants, but Jim Clancy is trying. If it works, the governor might owe him a favor.

Last week, Clancy suggested shutting down enforcement of the state’s ethics laws — his reaction to a Denton judge throwing out the Texas Ethics Commission’s ruling that a conservative activist should have registered as a lobbyist.

That activist — Michael Quinn Sullivan — prevailed. And Clancy took that as proof that the ethics commission should stop wasting money trying to enforce the state’s ethics laws.

“While I believe the Commission will prevail in its appeal to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, until the appellate court issues its decision, I ask the Commission to immediately cease issuing enforcement orders for all campaign finance and lobbying cases,” he wrote.

Clancy, by the way, is a member of that commission and its former chairman. He’s an attorney, and a conservative.

He argued that the commission needs the same enforcement authority enjoyed by other regulators — that their rulings have the force of law and can be appealed to the courts. As it stands, anyone who takes the commission to court over a ruling gets to start fresh: It’s not an appeal — it’s a do-over. And he said that the Legislature’s proposed budget cuts for the commission would keep it from doing its job well.

“In many ways, as it is currently structured, the Texas Ethics Commission is like a traffic cop standing in the middle of an intersection with a whistle,” he wrote. “He has no gun, he has no patrol car, all he can do is stand there and blow the whistle until help arrives. I am blowing the whistle. We need substantial evidence review. We need an auditor. We need an investigator. We need to be able to pay to keep our experienced attorneys.”

This hand-grenade-in-the-form-of-a-letter might have created just the crisis Gov. Greg Abbott needs to force legislators to pass serious ethics legislation.

Suppose the ethics commission follows Clancy’s advice: The Legislature would have a choice of closing its regular session in a couple of months having decided whether to fix the state’s ethics laws. That’s an interesting choice to make at the start of the next election cycle.

It could even set up a special legislative session. This is one of the new governor’s pet issues. In his State of the State speech this year, Abbott suggested lawmakers dedicate their current legislative session to ethics reform.

“The most important commodity we have as elected officials is the bond we share with our constituents,” he said. “Transparency — and rising above even the appearance of impropriety — will strengthen that bond. Rejection of ethics reform will weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”

Abbott detailed his plans before last year’s elections. He wants elected and appointed officeholders and their spouses to disclose business relationships with public entities and to be prohibited from voting on legislation that financially benefits them. He wants to prohibit school districts from using taxpayer money to hire lobbyists and to block referral fees for attorneys who are also elected officials. He wants to require quarterly campaign finance reports in place of semi-annual ones, and to require political campaigns and political action committees from spending money in the closing days of elections until after the sources of that money have been reported and published online.

Various lawmakers have their own ethics proposals. They’ve filed legislation that would tighten lobby reporting of money spent on people in government. Others are trying to revive legislation — vetoed two years ago by then-Gov. Rick Perry — to require more transparency from organizations that participate in political campaigns without disclosing the sources of their funding.

It has been more than 20 years since the Texas Legislature did a major reworking of the state’s ethics laws, and that was in the wake of scandals. The scandals — generally stemming from lawmakers living high at the lobby’s expense — created a crisis that forced the Legislature to regulate itself.

Clancy suggests that the state’s ethics laws can’t be enforced by the state’s regulators unless some changes are made. Abbott’s trying to light a fire under the Legislature. Maybe they can pull this off without waiting for a scandal. 

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Politics State government 84th Legislative Session Campaign finance Governor's Office Greg Abbott Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature