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Analysis: How Private Opinions Can Diverge From Public Votes

Tax cuts and politics ethics legislation have this in common: When lawmakers have to vote in public view, they're often forced to set aside their private opinions.

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When the debating and voting on legislation regulating political ethics or providing for tax cuts is done in public view, the outcomes are as reliable as gravity.

The Texas House voted 141-0 on Wednesday in favor of lowering the state sales tax by three-tenths of a cent, and then voted 116-29 in favor of lowering the rate on the business franchise tax, also called the margins tax.

Expect a tax fight ahead, because the Senate likes its property tax exemptions better than it like the House’s sales tax cuts, but you can be relatively certain that none of the state’s leaders wants to put members of the House and the Senate in a position where they’re voting against giving money to the folks at home. As for the 29 votes against the business tax cut, all were from Democrats. It’s safe in that party to vote against a business tax cut if you think the money ought to go to something else. But sales taxes are for regular people, and there was not a nay in the building when that came around.

Location has a lot to do with it. People who might disparage an idea privately often will not do so publicly.

Privately, some legislators are talking about ditching sales tax cuts and expanded property tax exemptions for homeowners altogether, using the money instead to enlarge a business tax cut they think would do more for the state economy. The consumer cuts are relatively small and politically hard to notice — i.e., the people who vote for them won’t get much credit for that work. The business tax cuts give them bragging rights and might create a job or two.

Publicly, well, you saw the vote tallies.

Ethics legislation works like that, too. State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is carrying Gov. Greg Abbott’s ethics legislation and has been getting knocked around a little bit. He’s a former House member, a freshman senator and has the sort of Boy Scout demeanor that gets you pushed off the slide in the school playground. Without going into all of the details, he filed a 14-page bill. By the time he had maneuvered into place for consideration by the full Senate, he had lost all but five pages.

But in the open, it’s hard to vote against things like disclosure and conflicts of interest. During a somewhat cranky debate — one that most voters will never bother to watch (it’s available here) — it was clear that some senators didn’t like what Taylor was serving. But they ate it, adding 10 amendments to the legislation that mostly made it stronger and stricter and then voting 30-1 to send it along to the House. That no vote was quickly changed — it’s not clear who cast it — and the bill went into the books with unanimous 31-0 consent.

That kind of proves the point about voting in front of voters, doesn’t it?

Senators voted to lower how much a lobbyist can spend on food, drinks and entertainment without naming the lawmaker being fed, from $114 to $50. They voted to end “splitting,” a practice that allows lobbyists to share the bill to stay under that reporting limit. They even voted to force candidates for office to take drug tests, which would let you see the contents of your lawmakers as well as the contents of their legislation, their campaign accounts and their income sources.

Lots of people over in the House don’t like voting on ethics, either, but if this gets to the floor over there and they have to put their names on their votes, they’ll vote the way they think their voters want them to vote — instead of the way they’d vote without their voters watching.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, stood up to say the debate had turned silly, and he blamed the tone set by Taylor as he presented his bill, saying he “implied that we’re all crooks, that there’s a lot of sleazy members, to compare us to New York, to say that we’re ripe for corruption.”

He challenged him to name names. “You ought to go row by row,” Whitmire said. “Who are you implying that needs additional ethics enforcement? Because if you know someone, you need to name us. And you need to run over to the district attorney or the U.S. attorney’s office if you have any, any scintilla of evidence that there’s wrongdoing.”

He made his point. The Legislature isn’t full of crooks, although it generally turns out to be harboring one or two at any particular time.

But Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the Senate and a lawmaker who has himself been accused of ethical lapses, helped make Taylor’s case.

At the moment, there’s nothing to report to those prosecutors. It’s not that anyone in the building is doing something that’s against the law. The contention from Abbott on down is that some of the things lawmakers are doing are not against the law — but ought to be.

Now that idea is on its way to the House.

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