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Senator goes for low-hanging fruit in ethics reform

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is taking a realistic approach to ethics reform this year. He's pushing proposals that got wide agreement in both chambers two years ago but ultimately failed to draw Gov. Greg Abbott's signature.

Sen. Van Taylor R-Plano, during an August 22, 2016 Sunset Advisory Committee hearing in Austin, Texas

State Sen. Van Taylor, who ran up against strong institutional resistance when he tried to pass ethics reforms in the 2015 legislative session, is taking a pragmatic approach in his do-over attempt this session. 

He’s going for the low-hanging fruit.

In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Dallas Morning News, the Plano Republican signaled he will push reforms that got large majorities in each chamber, even though they didn’t make it all the way through the legislative process and onto the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Taylor cited two obvious examples: taking lucrative state pensions away from elected officials who are convicted on serious public corruption charges and requiring lawmakers to reveal contracts they have with governmental entities, such as school districts and municipal agencies. He also said he wanted to shine more light on “the relationship between elected officials and lobbyists.”

Both chambers passed different versions of bills requiring disclosure of the currently opaque wining and dining of lawmakers by special interest lobbyists. Under a widely used loophole, lobbyists can avoid naming the politicians they are entertaining, rendering the disclosure law passed in the early 1990s virtually meaningless.

According to a 2013 Texas Tribune analysis, only 3.6 percent of the lobbyist disclosures in 2011 for categories that can be itemized if thresholds are met — including food, booze, gifts and entertainment — had any identifying details. That was down from 5.18 percent in 2005. 

Taylor has his work cut out for him. Even the seemingly common-sense proposals that got wide majorities in each chamber flamed out in the spectacular collapse of the 2015 ethics reform package. Taylor called that missed opportunity “pathetic,” blaming “bizarre stunts” and “sleights of hand” used to thwart true change in Austin. 

“When the will of the people runs counter to the desires of entrenched politicians and insider lobbyists, the illusion of action often trumps the pursuit of meaningful solutions,” Taylor wrote. “Ethics reform represents one of the most glaring examples of this reality.”

Taylor said he had other ideas for ethics reform and would pursue them during the upcoming session, which begins the second week of January. But he wants the focus to remain on what’s achievable and not allow differences among legislators to torpedo what’s clearly doable.

“I will be filing my own separate ethics bills where I think Texas needs additional reform and encouraging my colleagues to do the same,” Taylor said. “But policy proposals are disingenuous if they are used to sabotage substantive ethics reform where wide agreement within the Legislature already exists.”

One big unknown this time around: how much political capital Abbott will put behind ethics reform this session.

Abbott declared the issue an emergency in 2015 and called on lawmakers to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.” Instead, they deadlocked on virtually all of the items Abbott embraced while passing something he didn’t — a loophole allowing lawmakers to hide their spouses’ wealth from prying public eyes.

Abbott ended up vetoing that measure — taking with it the remaining shards of reform he called for.

In an email sent to top aides soon after taking office, Abbott accurately predicted that ethics reforms would fail in a busy regular session and theorized that he would have to call one or more 30-day special sessions in order to put pressure on lawmakers who otherwise would be reluctant to regulate their own behavior.

“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.

After the ethics reform effort cratered as he predicted, though, Abbott did not call a special session on that or anything else. He has said little about the topic since the end of the 2015 session. 

In a written statement, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Abbott still considered ethics reform a priority. He did not say whether Abbott would call a special session if the Legislature again fails to pass it. Abbott has taken a dim view of special sessions on hot-button topics in recent interviews, saying Texans expect lawmakers to get their work done in the 140-day regular sessions that occur in the first half of every odd-numbered year.

"Meaningful ethics reforms that reinforce the faith and trust that Texans place in their government remains a priority for the governor," Wittman said. "He looks forward to working with the Legislature this session to enact significant reforms into law.”

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