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Major Ethics Overhaul is Declared Dead

With no collective will to expose "dark money" contributions in Texas, a major ethics overhaul died in the waning hours of the 2015 legislatives session. A few piecemeal changes are still possible before the final gavel comes down on the 84th Legislature Monday.

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, at a Tribune event on Dec. 11, 2014.

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

With no collective will to expose dark money contributions in Texas, a major ethics overhaul was snuffed out in the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session.

"It's dead," Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said Saturday afternoon. "When the Senate chose not to include campaign disclosure reform at all, there’s really no reason to go forward. That was the most important thing from the House's perspective."

Cook was referring to the dark money provision that would require politically active nonprofits, which have poured millions into state and federal elections in recent years, to disclose their donors. 

Hoping to find a last-ditch compromise, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who pushed the reform effort through the state Senate, wrote a letter urging House members to strike a deal by passing what both chambers have already agreed on. But that didn't include the dark money amendment — an idea that has pitted Republicans against one another.

Taylor, along with Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Senate, has been unwilling to embrace any restrictions on the anonymously contributed money, which influential conservatives have fought to keep secret. Last session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill requiring disclosure of dark money, and Abbott applauded him for it.

"The fact that folks are championing dark money is amazing to me," Cook said. 

Taylor offered two different versions of a compromise to a joint House-Senate “conference committee,” made up of negotiators from each chamber. Neither had dark money restrictions in it, but they would have strengthened considerably the disclosures of legislative conflicts of interest, shed more light on lobbyist wining and dining, and required lawmakers to reveal more sources of their income.

“While we disagree on substance, it is our hope that the House shares our desire to be accountable to the people we serve,” Taylor wrote. “It would be an embarrassing failure of leadership if the House opts to let this important legislation die in conference committee, especially during a session [that’s] supposed to be devoted to strengthening the ethical standards of elected officials. Texans expect us to deliver.”

With a Sunday night deadline for bills to be passed looming, a handful of ethics proposals remain viable, including a proposal shedding more light on elected officials who make money from local governments and another bill closing the "double-dipping" loophole that longtime politicians can use — as Perry once did — to draw a salary and pension at the same time.

But those minor tweaks are a far cry from the sweeping reforms that Abbott called for on the campaign trail and again in February, when he told lawmakers during his state of the state address that he wanted to "dedicate this session to ethics reform." 

While the bills modestly increasing disclosure work their way toward the finish line, the Legislature has already given approval to a bill creating a new loophole allowing legislators to conceal more information about their spouse's financial activity and holdings, along with legislation carving out a whole new system for prosecuting crimes against elected officials and state employees.

Both of those measures have been panned by watchdog groups. Now the bills go to Abbott, who can either sign them, veto them or let them become law without his signature.

“The Legislature gets a 'F' on ethics reform this session. The bills they passed largely protect the politicians and limit disclosure of information,'' said Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. "They made it clear who they represent — and it’s politicians’ interests, not the public interest."

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Politics State government Texas Legislature Van Taylor