Committee Waters Down Ethics Reform Legislation

Proposed ethics reform legislation underwent a significant overhaul Thursday in a Senate committee. Gone is the plan to take state pensions from lawbreaking lawmakers. Also out: a proposal to stop legislators from cashing in on a piece of the public debt business.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Gov. Greg Abbott; and state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Gov. Greg Abbott; and state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano.  Bob Daemmrich / Marjorie Kamys Cotera

*Editor's note: This story has been updated with information on the Senate State Affairs Committee's expected vote on Senate Bill 19.

Ethics reform, always an iffy proposition in the Texas Legislature, took a major hit Thursday in a Senate committee.

Gone is the plan to take lucrative state pensions from lawbreaking lawmakers. Also sliced out of the overhaul, known as Senate Bill 19, was Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposal to stop legislators from cashing in on a piece of the public debt business. 

And the provision aimed at preventing representatives and senators from walking straight from their elective offices into a job with the special interest lobby?

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That “cooling off period” would only apply to newcomers — not to any current members of the Legislature.

“It’s gone from weak to worthless,” said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen of Texas. "Instead of reform, it’s become another chapter in the incumbent protection plan, which has been constant theme throughout this session.’’ 

SB 19's author, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, made it clear Thursday morning, after submitting a dramatically revised version of the legislation in the Senate State Affairs Committee, that the bill needed to be improved as it works its way through the legislative sausage grinder. A vote on the new version had been expected Thursday afternoon, but there weren't enough members present to establish a quorum and the meeting was canceled. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, said she expected the bill to come up for a vote on Monday.

"I think that what is going to come out of committee and what gets on the governor's desk, I would be stunned if they're the same," said Taylor. "That is the nature of the legislative process. There's a lot of different ideas going in a lot of different directions. My job is to shepherd this through and to ensure that we end up with some very substantial ethics legislation."

The freshman senator, designated by Abbott to carry the governor's ethics proposals in the upper chamber, cited the support and encouragement he’s gotten from Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in pushing for reform.

Patrick made sure the legislation had a low bill number, typically a measure of its rank on the list of priorities, and Abbott declared an ethics “emergency” several weeks ago and called on the Legislature to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.” 

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In the bill's original form, legislators — who can retire with generous pensions at age 50 after a dozen years of service — would have lost their retirement benefits if convicted of a serious crime related to their official duties.

That section has been removed from the bill over concerns that lawmakers could lose the benefit over unfair or trumped up charges, officials said. 

Taylor also faced major blowback over a provision — which was part of Abbott’s ethics reform package — to bar members from serving as bond counsel for public entities. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, has represented public entities, including Dallas County, as bond counsel. His office successfully pushed for changes that strip the ban Abbott was seeking. 

As it’s written now, the legislation merely requires that legislators disclose certain information about public sector bond deals for which they provide legal services.

West declined to comment on his role in the negotiations over that provision.

In another significant change, the effective date for the legislation has been changed to early 2017 instead of this fall, and a new provision would give more leeway to legislators who submit inaccurate personal financial reports to the Ethics Commission. In the new version, lawmakers would be in compliance as long as they made any good-faith corrections before someone — typically an opponent — made a sworn complaint about the error on the report. 

The bill retained a provision requiring lawmakers to disclose any major contracts they have with governmental entities. But after hearing complaints from legislators, Taylor stripped out language that would have included contracts held by spouses and dependent children.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she was disappointed about the change and told Taylor she liked the way it was before.

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But Sen. Rodney Ellis called the whole bill an "overreach." He is trying to strike out an entire section of the bill, titled "conflicts of interest," that deals with who can work as a registered lobbyist and when. 

"This seems at worst unconstitutional and at best bad public policy,” Ellis said. "It’s a part-time citizen Legislature. It means that there are going to be some inherent conflicts on how people derive their income."

"To start arbitrarily excluding certain classes of citizens because of how they derive income creates an extremely dangerous precedent in my judgment," he added. "Maybe we want only to have people who don’t have to work in the Legislature.” 

Explaining some of the heartburn that the bill has caused lawmakers, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she heard concerns that certain legislators were being “singled out” based on their occupations. 

She said she also heard complaints that the provision restricting most major elected officials from working as registered lobbyists targeted specific officeholders — most notably Republican Thomas Ratliff, an elected member of the State Board of Education who lobbies for a living. The bill exempts unpaid elected officials in relatively medium-sized or small political jurisdictions.

“Some people felt that individuals were singled out,” she said. “I had no idea that people thought that was aimed specifically at Thomas Ratliff. … I disagree with that limitation.” Under the bill, as passed Thursday, Ratliff would have to either give up his lobby job or leave the state board. 

Ratiff, who was at the hearing Thursday, said lawmakers should exempt him with a "grandfather" clause in the same way the bill exempts legislators.

"If they grandfather themselves, they ought to grandfather anybody duly elected by the people," Ratliff said.

Taylor says the ban on politicians who double as lobbyists is not aimed at any specific individual.

The House, where state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is carrying major elements of Abbott's ethics package, is expected to consider its own version of reform in coming weeks. The session ends June 1.