Lawmakers in the Texas Senate aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to let the public know who’s wining and dining them.
Two bills aimed at requiring disclosure of such lobbyist entertainment are on the verge of being snuffed out in the Senate State Affairs Committee, according to the sponsor of the measures, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s vow a few weeks ago to “dedicate this session to ethics reform."
Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin said he has been told not to expect even a public hearing on the bills, let alone a committee vote.
“I have not been given a reason. I’m surprised,” Watson said. “They may not be dead dead, but I hear the death rattle.”
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the committee chairwoman, was noncommittal as she walked onto the Senate floor on Tuesday.
“I’ll have to take a look at it,” she said. “There are a lot of pending bills.”
Watson’s bills, Senate Bill 585 and Senate Bill 586,would close a loophole that has made a mockery of the 1990s era law that was supposed to require lobbyists to report the names of the lawmakers they’re showering with drinks and taking to fancy dinners.
Technically, under current law, a lobbyist who spends more than $114 on any one state official has to report the name of the person who's being entertained with food and drink.
But that almost never happens.
Instead, these lobbyists — pressured by lawmakers who don’t want to face the embarrassment of seeing their names in public reports — evade the already weak disclosure law by getting fellow registered lobbyists to chip in. That allows them to spend far more than the limit, and leaves the public entirely in the dark on where all the lobby largesse is going.
According to a 2013 Texas Tribune analysis, only 3.6 percent of the lobbyist disclosures in 2011 for categories that can be itemized if thresholds are met — including food, booze, gifts and entertainment — had any identifying details. That was down from 5.18 percent in 2005.
Watson wants to lower the reporting threshold to $50, and he would require a detailed disclosure even if multiple lobbyists banded together to get around that lower limit. If more than $50 were spent on a state official, all the lobbyists who paid for it would have to provide detailed reporting as if they had each spent the higher amount.
It’s too early to say whether the push for more disclosure can survive the lack of enthusiasm for it in the Senate. Stand-alone measures that die in committee could be resurrected during floor debates on other legislation.
Also, under House Bill 972 by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, lobbyists would have to provide detailed reporting for any meals or drinks over $50, but they could still team up with their colleagues to collectively spend more than that without reporting it to the public.
That bill was left pending in the House State Affairs Committee nearly a month ago.