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Senate Passes Ethics Reform of a Generation?

Bill author Van Taylor said SB 19 was one for the history books. Others, including John Whitmire, disagreed.

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

A centerpiece of work this week in the Senate was a major ethics overhaul bill, an effort tagged as a priority by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, Senators gave the OK to Senate Bill 19, authored by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Taylor called the bill the most significant ethics reform in a generation. But others weren't as impressed, and the debate got heated at times.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Taylor's description of the bill did a "horrible disservice to the Legislature," which he said is not nearly in need of reform as Taylor has implied.

"It is wrong to suggest that this body suffers from a corrupt environment," Whitmire said.

Senators passed amendments that would require personal finance disclosures be posted online, would prohibit legislators from serving on elected boards and would require current lawmakers to abide by a two-year "cooling-off period" before they could lobby the Legislature after leaving office.

The amendment that generated the most talk may have been the one by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, that would require candidates who run for elected office to take a drug test. The test wouldn't have consequences, but the results would be posted on the Texas Ethics Commission's website. That amendment passed 22-9.

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For the most part, the amendments bolstered the rigor of the bill, an interesting development after some critics accused the Senate of watering down the bill in committee.

In addition, the bill became a vehicle for Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to add his legislation making it tougher for lobbyists to buy meals for lawmakers without disclosing who they were feeding.

His language set the reporting threshold at a fixed $50 and also would stop the practice of splitting the ticket among lobbyists to skirt reporting requirements.

One takeaway is that lawmakers who might otherwise be opposed to these new restrictions couldn’t afford to vote against them with the public watching. Whether these amendments stay on the bill until it reaches the governor’s desk is an open question.

But approving an ethics bill today that is high on the governor’s legislative agenda gave Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick a signature accomplishment to bring to this week’s breakfast with Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus.

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That was not the only contentious bill to hit the Senate floor this week. Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred for roughly two hours Wednesday over SB 1628 by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. The bill aims to overhaul how property owners can sue their insurance providers for failing to provide timely and adequate claims.

Among other things, it would put a two-year time limit on seeking claims and require homeowners to show proof of storm damages when filing a lawsuit.

The controversial insurance bill is one that consumer groups argue is an assault on homeowners’ rights but one that tort reformers call essential to stopping frivolous lawsuits.

Senators ended up giving their tentative approval to the legislation late Wednesday afternoon with the understanding that further corrective language would be added the following day on final reading.

The legislation received final approval on Thursday.

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On Thursday, the Senate debated SB 455 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a bill that would require the state Supreme Court chief justice to name a three-judge panel in cases related to school finance and redistricting.

"All Texans will be very well represented by the adding of two additional judges on issues of statewide impact," Creighton said. "In the process that we have right now, they could not."

Several Democrats spoke against the bill, concerned that the GOP was using its majority to extend influence into the legal system.

"You say that a judge from your county, my county should be able to weigh in on these two constitutional issues – why can't they weigh in on all constitutional issues?" asked West. "Republicans have control of the Senate, but I think this is overreaching in the judiciary."

Reporter Eva Hershaw contributed to this report. 

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