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Analysis: In Texas, Lawmakers Regulate Their Own Regulators

The Texas Ethics Commission regulates legislators. Legislators control the commission's laws and budget. It's a complicated relationship.

State Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, listen to testimony at a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing reviewing current ethics laws governing public officials and employees on Oct, 5, 2016.

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Texas legislators apparently think the people appointed to regulate campaign finance and officeholder ethics are “haughty.”

God bwess their widdle hearts.

Seriously, senators made it clear at a State Affairs Committee meeting this week that they are riled up at the Texas Ethics Commission — and reveled in an opportunity to jab and poke at the officials who police their industry.

It’s an interesting setup, where the people who are being regulated are also the people in control, more or less, of the regulators. The hearing was also a great exhibition of lawmakers doing one of the things they do best: Bullying unelected state officials and employees.

They said the commission spends too much time on nickel-and-dime infractions — paperwork errors and the like. They griped about a commissioner who rejected a resignation request from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Patrick wanted to appoint someone in Hugh Akin’s place and let him know; Akin let Patrick know, in a letter, that he’ll serve until his term ends 13 months from now.

This is an insiders’ fight. One reason it’s hard to write ethics laws is that most Texans don’t pay much attention to the mechanics of elections, lobbying or the everyday business of being an elected officeholder in Texas — except when there is a scandal big enough to stay in the news for a while.

One of the biggest battles now is important, but falls well short of the salacious scandals that drove reforms in the mid-1970s and the early 1990s: whether political nonprofits have to disclose the sources of their money when they are trying to influence the results of elections and public policy. 

Maybe such disclosures would be innocuous. Boring, even. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe there’s a skunk in the woodpile here, but who can smell it? Why protect the skunk?

The other side has an argument, too — one rooted in your right to act politically without putting your name on your work. That’s how it is for speech, for meetings and — they argue — for political spending.

That debate has been taking place at the commission, in the courts and in political campaigns for years. The Legislature will take another crack soon, but it won’t be their first attempt.

Lawmakers, with an initially strong push from Gov. Greg Abbott, set out to rewrite the ethics laws in 2015, but bogged down in the fight over “dark money” — a term for political funds coming from undisclosed parties. They’ll be back for another try in January; Wednesday’s hearing was called as part of the pre-session preparation for that.

Maybe such disclosures would be innocuous. Boring, even. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe there’s a skunk in the woodpile here, but who can smell it? Why protect the skunk?

The commission is getting a makeover of sorts even without any change in law. It started the year with four of its eight commissioners serving as holdovers — remaining in office past the ends of their terms because the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker had not named replacements for them. And those three had been sitting on this for a while: Tom Harrison, a commissioner who was previously the agency’s executive director, was serving a term that was supposed to have ended in November 2011. He recently resigned. Three other terms expired last November, but those members hadn’t been replaced.

Abbott replaced two of those holdovers with private attorneys on Thursday, naming Chad Craycraft of Dallas and Katie Kennedy of Houston to the commission. House Speaker Joe Straus named former state Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas to the commission last month.

That leaves one holdover, former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco of Austin, still in place until she’s replaced by someone chosen by Patrick — an appointment expected soon.

The remaining four commissioners can serve until November 2017, when the three top state officials will have an opportunity to complete their remodeling.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, wanted to know who’s watching the watchdogs. “If you are untouchable, we’ve got a problem,” he told Chase Untermeyer, a former state lawmaker and U.S. ambassador to Qatar who now chairs the Ethics Commission.

They’re touchable enough, overseen by the legislators whose business practices —political and official business practices, anyhow — are regulated by the commission. It’s a circular thing, which is how the Legislature wrote the laws interpreted by the state agency that polices campaign and political ethics.

Wouldn’t you love to be in control of the rules and budgets of the people who regulate you?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The state government has been stable for long enough that those in charge should get tagged with what that government is doing wrong.
  • Registering new people to vote is terrific, as far as it goes. But it doesn't mean more people are going to actually cast votes.
  • The end of one political race is often the beginning of the next one. As former Gov. Rick Perry learned, an "oops" moment in one contest can color voter opinion in the next one. That ought to worry U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. 

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Politics State government Dan Patrick Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joe Straus State agencies Texas Ethics Commission Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate