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Lobbyist-Politicians Targeted in Ethics Bill

Elected officials who lobby the Texas Legislature would have to give up one of their gigs under an ethics reform bill considered during a public hearing Monday.

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is shown on May 28, 2011, when he was a state representative.

*Correction appended

Texas lawmakers considered legislation Monday that could bar several elected officials from holding their posts in the future, including a moderate member of the ideologically divided State Board of Education.

The disqualification provision is contained in an ethics reform package, authored by Republican Sen. Van Taylor of Plano, which would bar many elected officials in Texas from working as registered state lobbyists.

“Elected officials in Texas should not be lobbyists,” Taylor said. “It’s a very simple idea. It rolls off the tongue easily.”

That prohibition, however, would only affect elected officials who lobby state government, and wouldn't apply to legislators or any other officeholder whose qualifications are spelled out in the state or federal constitutions, such as the governor, attorney general and other major statewide elected officials.

The bill would not stop state lawmakers from engaging in the fairly common practice of lobbying for pay at the local or federal level.

It would apply to local elected officials and members of the State Board of Education.

The most prominent official who would find himself in the crosshairs of Taylor's Senate Bill 19 is Thomas Ratliff, an elected member of the state education board. Ratliff, known for his moderate views, is a registered lobbyist whose clients include the American Insurance Association, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, T-Mobile USA and exonerated former death row inmate Michael Morton, according to the Texas Ethics Commission filings.

Ratliff questioned whether the Legislature would run afoul of the U.S. Constitution by determining who is eligible to hold elective office “based on what they do for a living.”

“Isn’t the First Amendment just as valuable as the Second Amendment?” he said.

Other elected officials who serve as lobbyists include Todd Webster, the mayor of Kyle, a booming town just south of Austin. Webster, former chief deputy commissioner at the Texas Education Agency, said his mayoral job is an unpaid gig that doesn’t conflict with his role as a lobbyist for education service providers and the Spring Branch Independent School District.

If the bill passes, Webster said he would “either continue to be mayor or will not be a lobbyist. One of the two.” At least one other elected official, Sunset Valley City Councilman Jeff Burdett, a lobbyist for the Texas Cable Association, could face the same choice. Burdett did not immediately return phone calls from The Texas Tribune.

The bill would only apply to candidates who run for elective office after Sept. 1, the bill's effective date.

Taylor’s bill would also deny pensions to legislators convicted of serious crimes related to their service in office, bar legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists after they leave office and require for the first time that lawmakers disclose certain contracts with governmental entities.

The bill also seeks to prohibit lawmakers from certain paid jobs with public or governmental entities, which many see as a conflict of interest between a legislator’s official and private roles. In particular, the bill would bar legislators from serving as bond counsels, representing public entities on bond financing deals.

That issue arose in the 2014 governor’s race, when Republican candidate Greg Abbott hammered Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, for her bond counsel work for a slew of public entities with interests before the Legislature.

As governor, Abbott has declared ethics reform an “emergency” issue.

Taylor called his reform package “one of Gov. Abbott’s top priorities.”

“I particularly want to applaud Gov. Abbott for talking about the importance of ethics reform on the campaign trail and continuing on with that promise as he’s continued on as governor,” Taylor said.

Taylor's bill was left pending in the Senate State Affairs Committee Monday.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of a Sunset Valley city councilman. He is Jeff Burdett, not Burdette.

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