Ethics Reform: A Guide to What's Still Alive
Now that the massive overhaul contained in Senate Bill 19 has gone on life support, a few targeted efforts to shine the light on conflicts of interest and enhance transparency remain. Here's a guide to what's moving and what's not.
The sweeping ethics overhaul that sparked such heated debate at the Capitol has gone on death watch in the final days of the 2015 session, but a few targeted efforts to increase disclosure and rein in abusive practices still have a good chance to succeed before the gavel comes down Monday.
It’s too early to say exactly what reforms will survive, but as the deadline for getting the work done approaches, several remain viable. Among them: requiring more disclosure for lawmakers who contract with governmental entities or do legal referral work; closing the double-dipping loophole that former Gov. Rick Perry famously took advantage of; and taking away pensions from elected officials convicted of serious public corruption crimes.
The efforts are moving forward in a trio of bills just as the big overhaul legislation — Senate Bill 19 by GOP Sen. Van Taylor of Plano — hits a major impasse over unrestricted “dark money,” or anonymous donations funneled to politically active nonprofits. The House has backed dark money disclosure and the Senate has not, a standoff that now threatens a slew of reforms each chamber has agreed on, including detailed disclosure of lobbyist wining and dining, an idea that hasn’t exactly sparked enthusiasm in either the Legislature or the lobby.
One side could blink, of course, but at this point the sweeping overhaul approach has gone on life support.
In a statement, Taylor blamed the House for moving away from the focus on politicians and getting “preoccupied with pointing their finger at others,” but vowed to keep working to get some reforms to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.
“The Senate continues to pass additional measures to give the House every opportunity to do the right thing and show the people that our efforts to represent them rise above even the appearance of impropriety or self-service,” Taylor said. “It would be a shame for the House to kill the opportunity before us to pass meaningful ethics reform and affirm to the people of Texas that we truly do work for them as their public servants."
The sponsor of the House version, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, has indicated he will keep fighting to shine the light on dark money, which he says has a corrupting influence on politics and will eventually spark a scandal if wealthy donors and corporations can stay in the shadows.
In the meantime, Taylor has amended part of his original language in Senate Bill 19 to House Bill 3736, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, which was aimed at curbing conflicts of interest on state government boards and commissions but now has expanded to include the provisions requiring state elected officials to disclose legal referral fees, government contracts or bond counsel work — all of which Abbott has pushed for.
“Given the vastly differing versions of Senate Bill 19,” she said, “I think it is likely that House Bill 3736 will be the legislation triumphed as one of the 84th legislative session’s ethics bills.” She said she looked forward to working out a final compromise with the Senate to get the bill on Abbott’s desk. A separate bill by Davis that tightens ethics requirements in local government contracting is already headed to the governor.
Another reform that has a good chance of passage: Southlake GOP Rep. Giovanni Capriglione’s House Bill 1295, which would require local governmental entities to reveal all “interested parties,’’ meaning those who stand to financially benefit, in important contracts.
Interested parties would include a broker, intermediary, lawyer or adviser. The measure would also apply to state agency contracts approved by governing boards or any state government contract of $1 million or more.
That information would be forwarded to the Texas Ethics Commission and made available to the public, allowing voters to see if their lawmakers are scoring a big pay day at City Hall, a state agency or some other governmental body.
The Senate added a section applying to public colleges and universities, requiring them to “conspicuously disclose the identity of each sponsor” of academic research when the sponsor pays for half or more of the study. That provision is designed to ensure that citizens know when corporations or other private interests are funding academic research.
Elsewhere, longtime politicians would lose the right to double dip their salary and pensions — or to collect retirement pay if they are convicted of serious corruption crimes — under House Bill 408, being carried in the House by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. Turner said he’s fighting to keep the bill alive before the clock runs out Monday.
"I am fully committed to passing my bill that will once and for all ban the practice of double dipping by elected officials," Turner said. "With only a few days left in the legislative session, passing this measure is my top priority."
While some of the reforms government watchdogs want are still moving, several others are on life support. Among them are proposals to require that lawmakers disclose pension and government welfare benefits on their personal financial statements, restrictions on lawmakers who immediately become lobbyists after leaving office and efforts to close the loophole that allows lobbyists to hide who they’re wining and dining.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, managed to tack his wining and dining disclosure bills — which had been courting death — onto the massive Senate overhaul legislation. Watson’s proposal would close the loophole that in nearly all cases has prevented voters from knowing the names of the state officials lobbyists are taking to bars and restaurants. There is no limit on the amount lobbyists can spend on food and beverage for politicians and bureaucrats.
Watson got the proposal through the Senate twice — passing it once as an individual bill and another time by tacking it onto someone else's. Both efforts are now in serious jeopardy, though Watson says he won’t give up until the session ends.
“I used a belt and suspenders and still the pants are down around the knees,” he said. “We’re not completely naked yet.”
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