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Analysis: Taking Stock of the Ethics Session

The governor asked lawmakers to put ethics reform at center stage this year. They filed bills. They even voted in favor of some strong restrictions on lobbyists' and officeholders' official behavior. But most of it never got to Greg Abbott's desk.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to reporters at the Security Operations Center at the Department of Public Safety on May 12, 2015.

Did you really think the Texas Legislature had the guts to pass sweeping ethics reforms?

They talked about it. The governor tried to make it a priority. They said all the right stuff. They proposed what would have been some serious changes that would have changed their behavior, at least for a little while.

And they even took it through a process that allowed everybody in the House and the Senate to vote in favor of big reforms without really worrying that any of those reforms would become the law of the land.

These guys are good.

Voters clearly don’t like corruption. They say so whenever they’re asked. But most of the time, they also don’t care a lot about it. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll conducted in February, “political corruption/leadership” ranked third on the list of most important issues facing the state. Before you get excited about that, you should know that a whopping 7 percent of the voters put it at the top; almost four times as many were more worried about border security and immigration. Republican voters were more lopsided in their preference; only 1 percent listed political corruption/leadership as the most important problem.

Politicians, like lab rats, are responsive to external stimuli. The Texas Legislature, which is about two-thirds Republican, voted to add $800 million to the state budget for border security. Meanwhile, their omnibus ethics bill was dying of suffocation. A cursory reading of those poll results four months ago would have provided some foreshadowing of what ultimately happened.

Ethics bills are always hard to pass. Lawmakers have to be in a high state of embarrassment — meaning their voters are in a high state of awareness — before they have real incentives to act. The elements of success just weren’t in place this year. The House and Senate couldn’t make a deal, and the governor either could not or did not spur them to action after his call early this year to “dedicate this session to ethics.”

The big ethics bill’s proximate cause of death was a requirement that political nonprofits disclose their donors and the amounts they donate. The House, taking the position that voters should be able to see who is paying to bend public policy in Texas, said yes. The Senate, taking the position that the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from persecution for their political associations, said no. The governor piped in, after the fact, suggesting that such disclosure is unconstitutional.

That dark money provision might have been the culprit, but a lot of single-shot bills that included ideas contained in the big omnibus bill never moved. It’s not at all certain that the ethics bill would have done any better if the dark money provision had gone in the dumpster.

They’ll claim some wins, but check the ingredients: While they were strangling that bill, lawmakers sent another to the governor that actually goes backward, protecting the spouses of state officeholders from having to reveal their holdings and financial activities. As the Tribune’s Jay Root reported, the governor got a few bills changing ethics laws, but not the sweeping stuff he was after.

Abbott wanted to go big. In November 2013, he proposed letting voters sue lawmakers who failed to disclose business dealings with public entities. He proposed bans on referral fees for lawyers in the Legislature and on lawmakers voting on legislation from which they could profit. He was aiming that at his opponent at the time, Democrat Wendy Davis, but he reiterated and refined his proposals in the “blueprint” he was touting as he took office this year.

Some ideas made it to his desk, and the governor has until Father’s Day to approve or veto them. One would require lawmakers to disclose their government contracts and to refrain from voting when they have a direct financial interest. Another would block officeholders from collecting pensions while they’re still in office, as Rick Perry did during his final years as governor. But the big bill died.

Abbott could call a special session if he thought it would do any good. Ethics reform was one of his five emergency items, after all. But he closed that door when the session ended this week, without mentioning any particular topic.

“I do not anticipate them coming back until 2017,” he said of the departing lawmakers. The lawmakers who arrive then might have a taste for ethics reform — but only if their voters think it’s a priority.

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