Gov. Greg Abbott predicted months ago that state lawmakers would torpedo ethics reform.
And he concluded in a candid and prescient email to top staffers that he would likely be forced to call one or more 30-day special sessions in order to push meaningful reforms through a recalcitrant Texas Legislature.
The email was included in dozens of communications provided to The Texas Tribune under state transparency laws. The governor's press office declined to comment on the emails, or the thoughts he expressed about ethics reform.
Abbott accurately assessed the political reality: Ethics reform did indeed collapse last month. But the governor has not shown any interest in calling a special session on that or anything else.
In the email, Abbott discusses a San Antonio Express-News story published near the start of the recently concluded regular session. The email went to his senior aides at the governor’s office and to his top political consultant, Dave Carney.
Headlined “Lawmakers look to Abbott to lead on ethics reform,” the article dinged state elected officials for repeatedly paying “lip service” to ethics reform, only to gut it in the back halls of the Capitol. Abbott took the article as a call to action, labeling it a “throw down” and telling staffers, “I think we are obliged to pick it up.”
During his campaign for governor and throughout the session Abbott remained publicly upbeat, albeit cautious, about his chances for accomplishing sweeping reforms. During his Feb. 17 State of the State address, Abbott put ethics on the legislative fast track and said he looked forward to working with lawmakers to get it done.
It was a different story behind the scenes. Two weeks earlier, the Republican told of the failure he saw coming.
“Let me foreshadow a potential outcome,” Abbott wrote in the email. “We all know legislators will balk at these reforms as is suggested in the story. They will prevent it from being brought up or overload it so much that it cannot become legislation.”
He offered a bold solution.
“THUS…’’ he writes in capital letters, as he often does to emphasize a point. “It seems like the best possible avenue to get this done is in special session.” He seemed to signal that multiple special sessions might be needed.
“If I call special sessions on single based ethics issues, they will be hard pressed to vote against them, and can’t overload them with extraneous material. They won’t like it, but it will be a bed they made themselves,” he wrote.
Abbott’s private misgivings were well justified. The politicians proved incapable of reforming themselves, deadlocking on sweeping legislation in the final days of the session, pointing fingers at each other and junking up bills with poison pill amendments.
In the end Abbott even wound up vetoing two bills that contained several of the ethics proposals on his wish list because they contained a controversial provision allowing lawmakers to cloak financial holdings in their spouse's name, tacked on by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, late in the session.
Several members of the Texas Ethics Commission had urged him to reject the bills, arguing that the Huffman amendment gave a "blanket endorsement of for-profit couples where one spouse holds a government position and discloses nothing, while the other spouse holds a private position and potentially reaps substantial benefits from the spouse's government cache [sic], inside knowledge and political relationships," according to excerpts of the letter in the Houston Chronicle.
Though the vetoes also took down pro-transparency reforms many wanted, Paul Hobby, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, applauded the move.
“It's the right answer, particularly in a session where ethics was a priority," Hobby said. "We lost some stuff with this veto, but on balance it needed to be vetoed."