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Facing Blowback, Ethics Bill Could Lose Punch

Gov. Greg Abbott wants ethics reform, but the legislation working its way through the Senate faces major revisions as early as Monday. The debate demonstrates how difficult it is for legislators to change the rules that govern their own behavior.

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, at a Tribune event on Dec. 11, 2014.

After sparking blowback among legislators, a Senate proposal to overhaul ethics rules at the Capitol could lose some of the punch Gov. Greg Abbott was looking for.

Up for possible consideration Monday in a Senate committee, Sen. Van Taylor’s multipronged ethics reform bill would move the effective date of new ethics rules from later this year to January 2017. A proposed amendment, said by multiple Capitol sources to be gathering steam, would also strip out one of the Republican governor’s signature ethics initiatives — barring legislators from making money by serving as bond counsel on public debt offerings. 

Instead of prohibiting the controversial practice, which Abbott and others say represents a conflict of interest, the amendment, obtained by The Texas Tribune, would simply make lawmakers report the work on their annual ethics disclosure statements. Another proposed amendment would water down a measure aimed at politicians who do lobby work.

It’s still early in the process, and there will be numerous changes and floor debates in both the House and Senate that could change the details of the reform package. But the modifications and proposed tweaks to Senate Bill 19 already underscore how hard it is to move ethics reform through the Legislature.

Buck Wood, a Democratic lawyer who helped draft the watershed ethics reforms of 1973, said without a major crisis it’s hard to change the rules legislators live under. 

“Until the public gets pissed off about it, nothing is going to happen,” Wood said. “They’re not inclined to do it in the first place. It’s just very difficult to get them to regulate themselves.”

Lonnie Dietz, Taylor’s chief of staff, indicated that moving the effective date to 2017 might prevent a wave of retirements from lawmakers who choose to leave the Legislature rather than live under the new rules. 

“If passed, this would be the most significant ethics reform package in a generation, and if it causes retirements, it is not fair to the constituents and taxpayers to host a series of special elections,” Dietz said.

Taylor, a Plano Republican, has also added a provision that “further strengthens” the bill by bringing state legislators and congressmen under a provision that seeks to bar elected officials from serving as state lobbyists.

However, under another proposed amendment obtained by the Tribune, politicians serving in jurisdictions of 100,000 or less could continue paid lobby work at the Capitol. The tweak is aimed at allowing unpaid elected officials, such as small town mayors or city council members, to continue doing lobby work. 

Stripping out the prohibition on legislators who work on public debt financing deals would scale down the scope of the bill considerably. 

On the 2014 campaign trail, Abbott repeatedly called for an outright ban on allowing legislators to do that kind of work. It became a major flashpoint in his campaign against former Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, a lawyer who teamed up with a former staffer for ex-Gov. Rick Perry to do bond work for numerous public entities with interests before the Legislature.

“Elected officials shouldn’t profit off of their positions and line their own pockets at the taxpayers’ expense,” Abbott said on his website during the campaign. “They are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents rather than their own self-interest. It is particularly reprehensible for lawmakers to profit from taxpayers as bond counsel for public entities that add more to the public debt of taxpayers. My ethics reform plan puts an end to this unethical practice.” 

Texas has one of the highest levels of local debt per capita in the nation.

Davis, who sometimes voted on legislation pushed by those entities, always denied the Abbott campaign’s accusations that her public and private sector roles conflicted with each other. She has left the building now, but is not the only senator who’s done bond work for public sector clients.

Sitting Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also does bond legal work for public entities. Though he’s faced criticism, an opinion from Dallas County, among the public sector clients for which West has done bond work, said the arrangement is perfectly legal.

Multiple sources at the Capitol confirmed West was drafting the amendment stripping out the bond counsel prohibition from Taylor's bill. West’s office did not respond to phone and email messages Friday.

Asked about the proposed amendments circulating around the Capitol, Dietz said the bill remains a work in progress. 

"I know the senator has been in conversation with his colleagues and expect those to continue throughout the process," Dietz said. 

Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse did not comment directly on the proposed changes to the ethics package, but said Abbott would “carefully consider any legislation that reaches his desk.”

“He certainly supports all the ethics proposals that he laid out in his campaign,” she said.

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