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Texas Senate's ethics reform plan unveiled, targets revolving door

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, unveiled his ethics reform plan on Wednesday. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Republican Senate leader, was on hand for the unveiling and announced that there were enough votes to pass the proposal out of the 31-member chamber.

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, details his plan for passing ethics reform during a press conference at the Texas Capitol on Jan. 25, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

With Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at his side, Sen. Van Taylor unveiled an ethics reform package Wednesday that would make it harder for elected officials to cash in on their public office and require more disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Senate Bill 14 revives several measures that crashed and burned in the waning hours of the 2015 session. The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, called the legislation "a strong bill that will have transparency and hold our elected officials to a high standard” and said it had more than enough support to fly out of the chamber.

Taylor, a Republican from Plano, is focusing his efforts on measures that got broad support two years ago even though they didn't make it all the way through the legislative process and into law. 

"We have no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust people have in their government,"  Taylor said. "This is the people's bill."

His Senate Bill 14 takes aim at several controversial practices that have helped give the Legislature a reputation for loose ethical regulation and ineffective disclosure. They include: 

  • The revolving door: State lawmakers often go straight from their jobs representing constituents to cushy posts in the special interest lobby, where they cash in on some of the millions of dollars spent each year to influence their former colleagues. Taylor’s bill would require former legislators to sit out at least one full legislative session before becoming registered lobbyist; the bill also would bar most elected officials from working as state lobbyists. It would also prevent legislators who become lobbyists from making contributions out of their campaign accounts for two years after they leave office.
  • Wining and dining disclosure loophole: The practice is as old as the lobbying profession itself. More than two decades ago, the Legislature voted to require itemized disclosure of wining and dining that exceeds a certain threshold, but there’s a big catch: if several lobbyists contribute, they don’t have to itemize the expenditures as long as each lobbyist stayed below the threshold — currently $114. The widely exploited loophole has in turn left Texans in the dark about who’s wining and dining whom in the Legislature. Taylor’s bill would cut the per-diem in half, down to $57, and eliminate the split-reporting loophole so that expenditures above the threshold are itemized no matter how many lobbyists pick up the check.
  • Lucrative pensions for felons: Texas lawmakers are considered to be part-time state employees and get a yearly salary of just $7,200. But the ones with at least eight years in the “elected class” — literally what state law calls them — are eligible to receive pensions that people in the working class can only dream of. A legislator with just 10 years of experience is eligible to receive $32,000 a year in perpetuity — and double that with 20 years of elected service. Here’s the rub: under current state law, legislators and other state elected officials can keep their pensions even if they’re convicted of public corruption stemming from the very job they were elected to do. Taylor’s bill would cut off pension payments made from public retirement systems to Texas elected officials (including local ones) with a final conviction for serious public corruption offenses, such as bribery, abuse of office and theft of public money.
  • Lawmakers doubling as government contractors: It’s not uncommon for Texas legislators to get contracts with public entities such as school districts, cities and counties — a practice some say represents a conflict of interest, or at least an appearance of one. Taylor is not seeking to outlaw that practice, but he does want more sunlight in the arena. His bill would require lawmakers to report government contracts that meet a certain threshold and would require legislators who are lawyers to report their employment as bond counsel in debt financing deals with public entities. The bill would also enhance disclosure of their legal referral fee arrangements.

One notable absence from the bill: a provision closing the "dark money" loophole, which has been used by GOP and Democratic activists alike to cloak the source of their political donations. A fight among House and Senate Republicans over that issue doomed passage of the ethics reform legislation in 2015. 

In the past, Patrick has taken a dim view of the effort to require disclosure of "dark money," but he didn't rule it out at the unveiling of Taylor's bill outside the Senate chamber Wednesday. 

“The term 'dark money' was coined by some people,” he said. “You do have the right to support various groups and you do not have to be disclosed. So that issue will continue to be discussed.” Patrick added that he wanted to make sure that "any bill in that direction is not a political attack on any one person or group.”

Elsewhere, Taylor's legislation would ensure that elected officials convicted of felonies must vacate their office. Though current law says felons can't qualify as candidates for office, it doesn't expressly say they can't keep serving after getting convicted.

When Taylor was asked if the provision might eventually apply to Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been indicted on felony charges stemming from alleged securities fraud and faces a trial in North Texas later this year, he noted that there are a "lot of cases" people might conjure up. Last week, for example, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was indicted on felony charges

"My focus is not any individual case," Taylor said. "It is these sets of principles which are bigger than any one case.’’

Read more:

  • When the gavel comes down on the 2015 legislative session on Monday, lawmakers will have considered, but ultimately failed to pass into law, about two dozen different proposals aimed at curbing conflicts of interest and shining light into the dark corners of the Capitol. 
  • 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 earn Gov. Greg Abbott's signature.

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