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Ethics Bill Hits Dark Money, Secret Recording

An ethics overhaul package, dramatically reworked, now takes aim at people who secretly record lawmakers inside the Texas Capitol. It also would require certain politically active nonprofits to disclose large donations.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, on the House floor on May 7, 2015.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Groups that organize as politically active nonprofits, a popular strategy used by organizations that want to hide the source of their money, would have to disclose certain large donations under a “dark money” provision that has been tacked onto a sweeping ethics reform bill.  

Senate Bill 19 also takes aim at the people who secretly record or film at the state Capitol. Specifically, it would require people who record conversations with lawmakers inside the Capitol to gain the consent of all parties to the conversation or face a civil lawsuit.  

The changes, sure to stir heated debate, are among a slew of new proposals in the bill, which was approved on a 10-0 vote by the House Committee on State Affairs. The bill will now work its way toward the House floor, and working out difference between the two chambers could get contentious.

Influential conservative organizations, including Empower Texans, have voiced objections in the past to the dark money provision, and it quickly drew fire from the Senate author who drafted the original version of the ethics bill, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. In a statement, Taylor harshly criticized the dark money provision, noting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now running for president, supports the idea of disclosing such donations.

He said the objective of the ethics reform is to "shine a brighter light" on the conduct of elected officials.

"I fail to see how inserting one of Hillary Clinton's central campaign tenets, which restricts free speech and weakens the First Amendment to a degree that would likely require amending the U.S. Constitution, achieves this goal," Taylor said. "I have always maintained that meaningful ethics reform requires all members to vigorously contribute to the debate, and though time is fleeting, I remain hopeful that the House will join Governor Abbott and the Senate in tackling this issue."

The dark money provision, requiring disclosure of donation when political spending by a group reaches $25,000, was added in the House version by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee.

“If you survey the citizens of Texas, it’s over 90 percent who believe we should deal with dark money,” Cook said. “It would be unimaginable to me that there would be anybody in this building that wouldn’t want to make sure there is transparency and that we don’t have a situation where we are corrupting the free democratic process — which is what dark money is doing.” 

The legislation would also tighten up rules aimed at shedding light on conflicts of interest among legislators and requires lawmakers convicted of a felony to vacate their office.

The bill no longer contains a provision that would bar lobbyists from serving in most elected positions. It was known informally as the “Thomas Ratliff provision” because it would have required Ratliff to either quit his job as a lobbyist or give up his post on the unpaid State Board of Education. The legislation also removes a controversial requirement that all candidates for elective office in Texas undergo drug tests. 

In other notable additions, the bill would: 

  • Require lawmakers to swear, in a disclosure on their personal financial statements, that they are paid up on their income and property taxes; they would also have to disclose, for the first time, any pension or government welfare payments.
  • Prohibit automatically dialed phone calls, known as “robocalling,” to the office of a member of the Legislature in support or opposition of a bill. A violation would be a Class B misdemeanor.
  • Prohibit elected officials who become lobbyists from making donations out of their old campaign accounts for two years after they leave office and start lobbying; the provision replaces a “revolving door” provision that would have prohibited members from immediately becoming lobbyists when their public service ends.
  • Require any appointees of the governor, lieutenant governor or speaker to disclose any political contributions made by the nominee or the nominee’s spouse during the two-year period prior to the appointment.

Cook said he hoped to vote out the new version of the ethics overhaul bill Friday afternoon.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, made ethics a major issue during his 2014 race for governor, and he said during his February State of the State speech that he wanted lawmakers to "dedicate this session to ethics reform." 

Abbott has expressed skepticism in the past about requiring the disclosure of money that groups can currently keep secret. His office did not respond to requests for comment about the changes adopted Friday.

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Byron Cook