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Committee sends ethics reform package to Senate floor

The Senate State Affairs Committee approved legislation Thursday that would require lawmakers to reveal more of their private business dealings.

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

Days after Gov. Greg Abbott put ethics reform on the legislative fast track, a package of bills aimed at curbing conflicts of interest and punishing errant elected officials sailed out of a Senate committee Thursday. 

The legislation, which would not take effect until 2019, would require lawmakers to reveal more of their private business dealings, take away lucrative pensions from corrupt elected officials and close a loophole that allows special interest lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers without disclosing it. 

It also would slow down the “revolving door” that lets legislators immediately becoming lobbyists after they leave office and use their campaign funds to help set themselves up in business.

Those reforms and others are contained both in SB 14 and in several individual bills, all of which were approved unanimously by the Senate State Affairs Committee Thursday morning. The package, designated by Abbott as an “emergency” item to ensure quick passage, is expected to hit the Senate floor next week.

On Wednesday several government watchdogs praised the reforms, authored by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, as an improvement over the notoriously loose ethical regulations in Texas. But they said the bill isn’t strong enough.

“We support each of the articles in this reform bill,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group that tracks the influence of money in Texas politics. “We think transparency and accountability will improve under this legislation. We hope it goes forward.” 

But McDonald and others who testified said they wanted stronger disclosure provisions for elected officials who have government contracts. As currently written, it would require state officials to report on their financial disclosure statements any government contracts in which they have a 50 percent stake.

McDonald joked that he thought there was a typo in the bill.

“We think someone who has 5 percent of an interest in an entity with a contract — that should trigger disclosure," he said. "The 50 percent level is too high."

State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the committee, told McDonald, “I actually agree with you sir.” 

Read more:

  • When the gavel came down on the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers 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. 
  • 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 earn Abbott's signature.

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