Analysis: The Long and Winding Road to the Texas Ethics Commission

It's harder to appoint people to the Texas Ethics Commission than to other agencies. The politics are difficult. But it's also easy to just let it slide — and let commissioners serve for years after their terms end.

The Texas Ethics Commission is a dog that doesn’t bite.

It’s designed that way.

It’s the regulatory agency in charge of politicians and legislators. You think those folks want to give it real teeth?

That said, it’s also a strange place when it comes to appointing commissioners.

Most executive branch agencies in Texas are overseen by elected officials or appointed boards and executives. The elected leaders are your own fault, assuming you’re a voter. The appointments are mostly made by the governor, with a handful assigned to the lieutenant governor or the speaker of the House.

The eight-member ethics panel, however, is unique.

The governor appoints four members, and the lite guv and the speaker appoint two each. But wait, there’s more. Each of them chooses from lists of potential appointees provided by legislators in the House and the Senate. Not done with the rules yet: Those lists are split by party.

In practice, that means the political caucuses in the House and Senate have the first cull when it comes to who serves on the state commission that regulates the political activities of candidates, officeholders and lobbyists.

Here’s one example. Houston businessman Paul Hobby, whose term actually expired last November, has handed in his resignation. So has Tom Harrison, whose current term was over, technically, in November 2011 — that’s not a typo — and who has also sent in a letter saying he would like to move on.

House Speaker Joe Straus will replace Hobby, who was appointed from a list submitted by House Democrats and who would have to be replaced from a list provided by House Democrats. Harrison’s appointment is similar, except that the appointing official in his case is Gov. Greg Abbott, who will pick from a list provided by Senate Democrats.

Harrison and Hobby aren’t the only two holdovers on the commission. Wilhelmina Delco, a former state representative from Austin, was appointed by the lieutenant governor; her term expired in November 2015. The same is true of Bob Long, a gubernatorial appointee from Bastrop.

The commission is balanced politically, with half of the commissioners selected from Republican lists and half from Democratic lists.

Why? Because everyone was scared to death that one of the political parties would gain control and use the commission to terrorize its enemies.

Gotta admit, that sounds plausible.

The commission, like most of the state’s ethics laws, was born in scandal. Unlike some of the others, it was created by amending the state Constitution.

Even the gray-haired folks don’t remember much about putting the Texas Ethics Commission into the Texas Constitution. It was November 1991. It was one of 13 proposed amendments. And only one amendment — the one creating a state lottery in Texas — was getting any attention.

Even if they were thinking about the commission and even though they were doing it in the midst of nasty headlines about then-Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, and other state leaders, they were probably casting their vote based on legislative pay. Here’s how it read: “The constitutional amendment creating the Texas Ethics Commission and authorizing the commission to recommend the salary for members of the legislature and the lieutenant governor, subject to voter approval, and to set the per diem for those officials, subject to a limit.”

For the average voter, the thought process was even simpler: Ethics, schmethics. When can I get a lotto ticket?

They did approve that year’s Proposition 6, along with its peculiar directions for appointing the new commission’s members.

Everyone was scared to death that one of the political parties would gain control and use the commission to terrorize its enemies. Gotta admit, that sounds plausible.

But the creators of this particular agency left out any incentive for the state’s top officials to make new appointments to the commission. It’s interesting work for the commissioners, but not a political plum. Whatever the commission does is politically hazardous, almost by definition. No governor or lieutenant governor or speaker is eager to jump into a controversy if there’s no political gain to compensate for it.

It’s easier just to leave things alone. The party caucuses in the House and Senate have been relatively content with the current commissioners, and the three officials whose job it is to appoint replacements haven’t pressed for change.

Until recently, the commissioners themselves were willing to serve until well after their terms were supposed to end. Naming some new people could raise some attention, depending on who they are. If the state’s leaders are provocative about their appointments, they could even restart Gov. Abbott’s legislative push for stronger ethics laws after his first try produced mixed results.

Maybe lawmakers will give the ethics commission some teeth.

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