Senate Strengthens and Passes Ethics Bill

The Senate voted in often odd coalitions to reveal more about the money members make, prohibit themselves from immediately becoming lobbyists, post their financial statements online and even subject themselves and other elected officials to drug testing.

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

The state Senate passed a far-reaching ethics reform bill Tuesday, voting in often odd coalitions to reveal more about the money members make, prohibit themselves from immediately becoming lobbyists, post their financial statements online and even subject themselves and all other Texas elected officials to drug testing.

The bill, SB 19, by Republican Sen. Van Taylor of Plano, is far from becoming law. After a tortuous process that saw it watered down in committee only to gather strength again on the floor Tuesday, it faces an uncertain future in the Texas House. 

But it was a gigantic step forward in a session that Gov. Greg Abbott has asked legislators to “dedicate to ethics reform.”

Both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick hailed passage of the bill in emailed statements.

Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said the bill would help “eliminate conflicts of interest that could tarnish our government's image, hurt the public's trust and threaten our democracy."

Abbott, who gave ethics reform fast-track "emergency" status at the beginning of the session, thanked the Senate for passing a "meaningful ethics reform package.”

“SB 19 reinforces the faith and trust that Texans deserve to place in their government, and it ensures that we remain focused on who we truly serve — the people of Texas," he said. "I look forward to working with the House to enact these ethics reform into law.” 

It wasn’t immediately clear how the vote broke down. Patrick announced from the podium and in a news release that it passed 30-1, but a Senate aide later said it was a unanimous 31-0.

At the outset of the debate, Taylor urged lawmakers to impose new accountability measures before an ethics crisis hit the state, citing in particular the scandal in New York that led to a federal indictment of its sitting speaker, Sheldon Silver. 

After it passed, Taylor called the bill “a once in a generation opportunity for ethics reform” and said it would give voters confidence that lawmakers are in office to advance the interests of Texans — not their own financial interests.

“What passed out of the chamber is the most powerful ethics package to pass out of the Senate Chamber since 1991,” Taylor said. “You watched this ethics bill substantially strengthen this afternoon, and I think it will continue to gain strength as it goes over to the House.”

But in a sometimes tense floor debate, Taylor came under attack from the longest-serving senator, Democrat John Whitmire of Houston, who came into the Legislature after the Sharpstown scandal sparked political upheaval and triggered the most sweeping ethics and transparency reforms in the modern era.

“I hate to pop your balloon,’’ he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “but this is not the ethics reform of a generation.” Whitmire described the reform-obsessed session of 1973 — his first — as the gold standard for ethics overhauls.

The longtime senator, who himself has come under fire at times for alleged ethical lapses, said Taylor had “implied that we’re all crooks, that there are a lot of sleazy members,” in part by comparing them to the “slime” of New York politics.

Whitmire also accused Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, of “incriminating outstanding, honest people” after Huffines offered an amendment designed to stop members from entering into business relationships with each other. 

That amendment ultimately failed, but a slew of others got tacked on and helped turn what had been weak sauce into a major reform package.

In the bill as adopted, state politicians for the first time would be required to reveal any source of income — whether from a job, an investment or retirement benefits.

The current lack of state disclosure of retirement income was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 when then-Gov. Rick Perry ran for president. Federal disclosure laws, stricter than Texas rules, forced Perry to reveal that he was drawing both his state pension and his state salary.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said the new income provision was too much disclosure as far as she was concerned.

“We’ve crossed the line on this one,” she said. “I don’t think it serves the public, and I think it invades the privacy of the individual members of the Legislature.” But the amendment, added by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, passed on a vote of 18-12. 

Huffman made an even more impassioned plea to keep legislators’ personal financial statements from being published on the internet by the Texas Ethics Commission. They are already widely available on the Texas Tribune website, but Huffman said she didn’t want to make it easier for people to gather personal information about her.

The provision would give “anyone anywhere in the world access to where I live, what property I own and my children's names,” Huffman complained. “I find that above what as an officeholder we should have to submit our family and our personal lives to.”

Rodríguez, the author of the amendment, said that when people make the decision to enter politics, “we know that we are holding ourselves up to the light of public scrutiny.”

“Why not post it electronically?” he asked.

The Senate narrowly adopted the online disclosure amendment on a 16-14 vote. Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo and 13 Republicans, including new firebrand conservative Sens. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville; Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, voted against the amendment.

After blowback from some of the lawyers in the Senate, including Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, a provision that would bar lawyer-legislators from taking referral fees was stripped out of the bill. Instead, it would force them to disclose such arrangements on their personal financial statements.

Uresti later tacked on an amendment, by a vote of 15-10, barring legislators from receiving compensation from any “position” with a financial institution. As it turns out, Taylor sits on the board of a bank. Taylor sidestepped questions about whether he was being personally targeted by the amendment, but said that if that provision passed, he could just quit the bank board. 

In another amendment, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, managed to add a section aimed at closing a loophole that for years has allowed special interest lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers and their staffers without reporting the names of the people being entertained.

It was Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, who tacked on the drug testing provision that would apply to anyone who runs for “public elective office.”

“We need to be true role models," Lucio said. "It is important to show that it is cool to be drug free."

Taylor was asked if that far-reaching provision, which could spark opposition in the House, might torpedo his bill in the other chamber.

Taylor said House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has already told him the bill is “must pass” legislation, and he expressed confidence that when the Legislature concludes on June 1, a tough ethics bill will be headed for the law books. 

“I guarantee you it’s going to be different when it comes off the House floor than what just passed on the Senate floor today,” he said. “But I believe this bill will continue to gain strength.” 

The bill as written wouldn't take effect until January 2017, almost a year and half later than most bills typically become law. Watson said he didn't understand "why in the world we would take an emergency, generational piece of legislation and delay it until 2017.” 

Taylor answered that if the bill becomes law, it would likely trigger retirements among legislators who don't want to put up with the new ethics rules.

"If it's effective immediately a bunch of people are going to start leaving the Legislature," he said.