*Editor's note: This story has been update to include a statement from Sen. Van Taylor
The already tortuous path for ethics reform at the Texas Capitol took another sharp turn Wednesday when a powerful House leader criticized the package passed by the Senate and praised by Gov. Greg Abbott two weeks ago.
GOP Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, called the legislation, Senate Bill 19, “one of the most superficial efforts I’ve ever seen” at ethics reform, saying it attempted to address problems that don’t exist without fixing the ones that do.
Cook signaled that he would “probably” add a provision to the measure in his House committee requiring the disclosure of so-called dark money that has flooded into campaign coffers from certain politically active groups, which could make the bill a target for conservative activists who say they should be allowed to keep their donors secret. Cook said he planned to take about a week to work on retooling it before trying to get it to the House floor.
Abbott has called the Senate version of the bill “meaningful” and said it “reinforces the faith and trust that Texans deserve to place in their government.”
As for what’s in that measure already, Cook slammed a provision that would require virtually everyone running for or serving in elected office — ranging from school board members to the governor — to submit to drug tests. He also took aim at a “revolving door” section that would require lawmakers who want to go to work for special interest groups to sit out a legislative session before becoming lobbyists.
“If the House is going to take this issue up, we’re going to take it up in a meaningful way,” Cook said. “We’re not going to [minimize] something as important as this.”
The author of the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Van Taylor of Plano, said he's still "optimistic that the House will join the Senate in answering Governor Abbott's call to strengthen the bond elected officials share with their constituents."
"Ethics reform should be so paramount that it rises above charged rhetoric that only serves as a distraction from the challenge at hand — to deliver to the people a reason to be more confident in their state government," he said.
In February Abbott urged the Legislature to “dedicate this session to ethics reform,” after calling for new criminal penalties for self-dealing and putting far more sunlight into disclosure laws. Abbott's own proposal — unveiled during his 2014 campaign for governor — also called for more robust and quicker reporting of campaign donations.
Some of what Abbott wants is moving through the legislative sausage grinder, including a bill by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, that would for the first time require legislators to reveal contracts they have with governmental entities. Another piece, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would require more frequent reporting of campaign finance information.
Other ethics initiatives under consideration this session would shed light on lobbyist wining and dining, which is obscured now by a loophole that allows special interests to evade reporting who they are entertaining with lobby money.
SB 19 would close that loophole, but there are a lot of items in the multipronged ethics bill that have riled reformers. Several government reform activists testified Wednesday against the bill as is, saying it needs more work.
“We agree with the chairman,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “It’s time to have significant ethics reform. The bill before you does not deliver this.”
The legislation already underwent multiple revisions in the Senate — gutted, strengthened and changed in ways that made it a target of attacks. Now it faces a House overhaul and an uncertain future in the waning days of the 84th session of the Texas Legislature, which comes to a close on June 1.
“We should do this in a meaningful way and not in a way that is superficial, because the public will see through that,” Cook said. “I think there’s a lot of things that we should add to this bill.”
Asked if that should include a provision forcing the disclosure of “dark money,” Cook said, “Issues like that that probably need to be part of ethics reform.”