Editor's note: This story has been updated with details from Sen. Van Taylor's ethics plan.
Ethics reform went down the tubes in Texas a couple of years ago when Republican leaders deadlocked over a proposal to end the “dark money” loophole, which has been used by GOP and Democratic activists alike to cloak the source of their political donations.
Rep. Charlie Geren, the powerful Fort Worth Republican pushing ethics reform in the Texas House this year, is determined not to let that happen again.
Though he supports closing the dark money loophole himself, Geren said he fears the proposal could be used as a poison pill to kill off a broader package of bills — everything from taking lucrative pensions away from legislator-felons to disclosing all the lobbyist wining and dining that remains unreported.
“We got tangled up in a fight over dark money, and that killed the bill,” Geren told The Texas Tribune Thursday. “We’re going to have some single-shot bills that address individual issues, and you’re not going to be able to decorate them like a Christmas tree with other subjects.”
Geren said he is coordinating his efforts closely with state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who will author reforms in the Senate. Taylor has signaled he will advocate for reforms that received broad backing by lawmakers last session, even though they didn’t make it all the way through the Legislature and onto the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.
Taylor unveiled the framework of his ethics package Thursday afternoon at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual “policy orientation” conference.
It includes proposals that would take lucrative state pensions away from politicians convicted of felonies, require lawmakers to disclose their government contracts and eliminate the loophole that makes it impossible to find out which state lawmakers are getting wined and dined by lobbyists.
Taylor also wants to require retiring legislators to sit out at least one full legislative session before joining the special interest lobby or using their campaign accounts for lobbying purposes.
“My overall goal is to make sure that people have confidence that their elected officials work for them, that people know that my elected official is not there to get wined and dined, my elected official is not being a lobbyist because they’re being paid to influence policy somewhere else,” Taylor said. “Those basic ideas are about making sure that people know that their elected officials work for them and only them.”
The term “dark money” refers to funds raised by politically active nonprofits to independently influence elections. It’s legal for certain nonprofits to hide the sources of their money as long as their political activity stays below a certain threshold, as defined by state or federal regulations.
While dark money may not be part of the agreed-upon reform effort by Taylor and Geren, others are likely to push for greater transparency. It will be an uphill battle; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott have both opposed efforts to require disclosure of it in the past.
The most visible and influential group using dark money in Texas is Empower Texans, which has supported conservative Republican candidates. But a liberal nonprofit group, the Texas Organizing Project, was ranked No. 2 in the dark money arena during the 2014 elections by Texans for Public Justice, a money-in-politics watchdog that tracks Texas campaign spending.
While top Republican leaders continue to oppose efforts to reveal all political money, some activists in the GOP grassroots plan to push the Legislature to pass a law — as California has — to wipe out the dark money loophole.
The Texas Federation of Republican Women unanimously adopted a resolution late last year calling on lawmakers to adopt a measure saying that groups “engaged in political advocacy must publicly disclose their donors just as candidates and political action committees do.”
The resolution drew a written response from four conservative GOP House members — Reps. Matt Shaheen, Matt Rinaldi, Scott Sanford and Matt Schaefer — urging the group to reconsider. They wrote in their letter that requiring such disclosure would lead to “threats and harassment toward individuals based on their political beliefs.”
But federation president Theresa Kosmoski told the Tribune Thursday that her group will not shy away from its fierce advocacy of requiring the disclosure of dark money — no matter who’s against it.
“Anyone who is against transparency measures is really just laying out the welcome mat for dark money to come into the state from out of state and all over the place, and to buy elections in Texas,” Kosmoski said. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. It’s imperative that we stand up for voters.”
Read more stories on ethics reform in Texas:
- Taylor 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.
- Regulators are deciding how much lobby wining and dining Texas lawmakers can accept without revealing their names. Hint: It's a lot.