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Analysis: Ethics Reform on the Table — if Texas Voters Really Want It

The governor and lawmakers promise to reignite their efforts to tighten ethics laws in Texas, but they have so far been missing a key incentive to make reluctant officeholders go along: public interest.

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This is a known fact, in Texas and elsewhere: It’s hard to get lawmakers to regulate themselves.

Ethics reform, or whatever you wish to call it, usually takes place in the face of scandal. That’s when voters are both tuned in and insistent about straightening things out.

Greg Abbott tried last year, right after he was elected governor, to squeeze new ethics laws out of the Legislature.

That first attempt ended badly. But look on the bright side: If the next Legislature fails to do anything, it will probably fail for completely different reasons.

At the end of that legislative session last summer, Abbott vetoed the ethics reforms he had asked for, citing a poison pill added late in the process. It was an odd moment of concurrence between him and some of the liberal and progressive groups that want to regulate the behavior of officials in Texas government.

The bill, which exempted officeholders’ spouses from disclosing their holdings and income, screwed up the whole idea of having officeholders show their potential conflicts of interest to voters.

Abbott promised to revisit the issue, hoping that lawmakers won’t try again to hide their spouses’ business interests from public scrutiny as they did in the provision that won his veto.

“At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for meaningful ethics reform. This legislation does not accomplish that goal,” he wrote in his veto message. “Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans' trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws. Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session — the right way. Texans deserve better.”

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, took the heat for that late addition; it seems reasonable to think that neither she nor anyone else will be able to sneak that one in next time.

Another piece of legislation died because lawmakers couldn’t come together on whether to disclose the sources of money given to politically active nonprofit organizations.

The politicos call it “dark money.” If you give to a campaign or to a plain political action committee, your contributions are reported to the state and put online so anyone can see what your beneficiaries received.

That kind of disclosure is based on the outrageous notion that donors might have reasons to give money to governmental decision-makers and that voters should be able to look and see whether the money contributed has anything to do with the decisions that get made.

That runs into the time-honored idea that people ought to be able to participate in political activities without fear of retribution — that they should be free to associate and speak without risking reputations or livelihoods.

The Texas House approved legislation last year that would have required groups to disclose their donors if the groups spent more than relatively small amounts on political campaigns. The argument on that side was that some individuals in the state cloak their efforts to influence elections by giving to groups that then do their bidding without revealing who they are.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, led the charge for disclosure, keeping it in an important ethics bill in spite of a Senate threat that including dark money would kill the whole package. The Senate wasn’t alone; Abbott let it be known that he found that dark money regulation unconstitutional and that he had written as much in a ruling when he was on the Texas Supreme Court.

The dark money debate will return to the Legislature, however. Cook, who survived a re-election bid this month after a deluge of advertising and political activity paid for by anonymous individuals, promised another round. And he’s planning to skip the stop at Abbott’s office.

Cook is convinced voters are with him on the dark money question, so he’s proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would require disclosure of political contributors’ names that are now cloaked.

Constitutional amendments don’t go to the governor, so Abbott wouldn’t get a say (other than as a regular voter). The downside? Cook will have to get more than two-thirds of the House and of the Senate to put the idea on the ballot.

The odds are against anybody pushing ethics laws in the Texas Legislature, unless voters come out of this election year tuned in — and insistent.

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Politics State government Byron Cook Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joan Huffman Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature