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Analysis: Ethics Reform Placed at Center Stage, but Hurting for Attention

In February, Gov. Greg Abbott asked lawmakers to dedicate this legislative session to ethics reform. With only two weeks left, he's still waiting.

Gov. Greg Abbott annouces several emergency legislative items in his first State of the State speech on Feb. 17, 2015.

The centerpiece on the 84th Legislature’s table isn’t getting the attention the governor hoped for.

In his mid-February State of the State speech, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to put ethics reform high on the agenda, telling the Legislature, “Let’s dedicate this session to ethics.” He added it to his list of five “emergency” items that could get expedited treatment by lawmakers.

He pointed to ideas in his “blueprint” for the state, “like requiring elected officials to disclose contracts they have with public entities, prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and more disclosure of campaign finance information.”

Abbott told lawmakers that a failure to act would threaten the bonds between them and their constituents, “and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”

But not a lot has changed, and only two weeks remain before the session ends. Further reform is still possible, but the most significant changes being proposed still haven’t been considered by the Texas House, much less by a committee that would have to reconcile the Senate and House versions of reform.

Ethics legislation in the absence of a scandal is a bad bet. It’s only when the public demands change that lawmakers overcome their normal distaste for self-regulation.

Right now, with no scandal raging in Texas, lawmakers have moved only a few ethics bills. One, House Bill 681, would take government pension benefits away from officeholders convicted of certain felonies like bribery, embezzlement and perjury.

Another, House Bill 1690, would take prosecutions of state officeholders away from the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office. Republican legislators are convinced that the lawyers and juries in the state capital are biased against conservatives. And the current district attorney’s messy drunken driving arrest two years ago only added fuel to that fire. That bill is part of a deal to close House-Senate differences before the end of the session; its chance at passage is pretty good.

But the contract and income disclosures that Abbott wanted remain undone. Those would require lawmakers to reveal contracts and business relationships with government contractors that currently go undocumented. Lower limits on how much money lobbyists can spend on lawmakers without identifying those lawmakers is stuck. And the Legislature’s expected attempt to force political nonprofits to reveal the sources of their money — so-called dark money legislation — hasn’t moved. That would have been law two years ago without a veto from then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Other loose ends have been kicked around this session without threatening, so far, to become law:

  • Prohibiting lawmakers and staff from lobbying for one or two years after they leave the state payroll
  • Barring elected officeholders from working as lobbyists
  • Requiring officeholders to file their required personal financial disclosures in searchable online form instead of on paper
  • Requiring lawmakers to report pension and other income they currently don’t have to list
  • Prohibiting lawyer/officeholders from accepting referral fees or requiring them to report the fees they do receive.

Some of those provisions are in Senate Bill 19, which is the most likely vessel for an ethics showdown. It could make it all the way to a negotiating room where senators and representatives can work out a compromise bill or, in the alternative, suffocate ethics legislation many of them privately disdain but feel they publicly have to support.

That bill’s bumpy ride tells the tale of ethics legislation this year. It was 14 pages long when it started. A Senate committee chewed up and spit out nine of those. The full Senate added enough amendments to bring the page count back to 18. It has some of the promised stuff in it, and some odd bits, like a provision that would require candidates to take drug tests. (Maybe they’ll discover something that enhances the performance of elected officials.) And SB 19 could accommodate near every proposal promoted as ethics reform, if enough lawmakers are willing.

Time is short. A House committee has the legislation now, and has until the end of the week to send it to the full House, which in turn has to act on it by May 26.

But nothing is really dead as long as legislators are in town, especially if they think it’s important. The session dedicated to ethics by the new governor could still bear fruit.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Greg Abbott Texas Ethics Commission Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate