Ethics Legislation Headed to Senate Floor

A heavily watered-down ethics reform bill will soon be taken up by the full Senate. Lawmakers on Monday rejected an amendment that would have required legislators to publicly disclose their tax returns each year.

State Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, talks with a member on the House floor on May 16, 2011.

A heavily watered-down ethics reform bill is headed to the Senate floor after lawmakers rejected an amendment Monday that would have required legislators to publicly disclose their tax returns each year.

Passed out of the State Affairs Committee on a 6-1 vote, Senate Bill 19 would require lawmakers to disclose contracts they have with governmental entities, ban referral fees from lawyer-legislators, and make senators and representatives sit out one full regular session before leaving their jobs to become special-interest lobbyists.

But the legislation, by Republican Sen. Van Taylor of Plano, was far tougher as originally conceived. After some complained it was too stringent, the so-called cooling-off period for lawmakers who want to become lobbyists now exempts every current member of the Legislature. A measure preventing legislator-lawyers from making money off of public debt deals as bond counsel was taken out of the bill.

Taylor also agreed to slice out a section that would have taken away lucrative pensions from lawmakers who commit serious crimes connected to their public service.

Taylor is encouraging senators to come up with ways to strengthen the bill when it reaches the floor.

"The opportunity before us to make real, impactful ethics reform requires all members to vigorously contribute to the debate," Taylor said in a statement. "I encourage my fellow Senators to contact their constituents, review their legislative files, and offer any amendments they have to aid our collective efforts in passing an ethics reform package the people of Texas deserve."

Taylor said he planned to open the debate to "the will of the Chamber to vote on any and all amendments aimed at finding additional opportunities for ethics reform." 

During debate on the measure at the State Affairs Committee hearing, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, offered several amendments. One would have deleted the section titled "Conflicts of Interest," which deals with who can work as a registered lobbyist and when. That went down on a 6-1 vote. An amendment requiring recusal when members could benefit financially from the bills they pass also failed by the same margin, as did the one requiring legislators to provide their tax returns to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The committee vote came on the same day the House voted to create a new system for prosecuting public corruption cases involving state elected officials, judges and major bureaucrats. Under the bill, when corruption complaints arise against a member of that elite group in the state capital, the prosecutions would be moved out of Travis County and into the person's county of residence.

Supporters say Travis County, ruled by Democrats, has let politics influence its investigations and prosecutions. Critics say the cure the House proposed — which tracks more far-reaching legislation that's already cleared the Senate — represents the political equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the consumer group Public Citizen of Texas, said that at a time when Gov. Greg Abbott has declared ethics reform a legislative emergency, lawmakers appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

"This is shaping up to be the worst session for ethics in 30 years," Smith said.