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Analysis: The Texas legislative tales that (almost) got away

The big bills and arguments and personalities in the Texas Legislature catch most of the attention and headlines, but little things deserve their time in the spotlight, too.

House Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, speaks with House Appropriations Chair John Otto, R-Dayton, and House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, on the House floor on May 14, 2015.

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Maybe “Did you see that?” should be a regular feature during the legislative session — a way to pick up strange news items that slip by when you’re watching bigger events.

For instance, did you see Jay Root’s story in The Texas Tribune under the headline “Top Republican counsels against secret taping?”

Did you notice lawmakers trying to change the law that lets them keep their pensions even if they commit felonies in office?

Or the one that lets governments hide open records from taxpayers by privatizing some of their work?

• Let's start with that jazz about not wearing a wire while legislating. Besides being a reasonable bit of advice, it begs the question of why such guidance might be needed.

As it turns out, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has been hearing rumors of surreptitious recording of lawmakers — by other lawmakers. This is apparently a new invention. Lawmakers were whipped up two years ago when a group called the American Phoenix Foundation tried to pull a hidden camera gotcha game. A few videos went public but weren’t interesting enough to go viral or get anyone in real trouble. It passed.

Now comes talk around the Capitol that a handful of new House members are wired up to record private conversations and meetings with other legislators. Geren chairs the House Administration committee, which oversees internal affairs in that chamber. He didn’t name anyone, said he didn’t want to accuse anyone of anything, but frowned about it. (A Geren frown, if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing one, can be intimidating.)

Incredibly, he implied that skullduggery of this sort is legal. “I’ve asked members of both parties not to do it, but that doesn’t mean they can or cannot,” Geren told Root. “I don’t think it’s very professional, but if they do it, they do it.”

Former Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who is now a Harris County commissioner, spent a long time recovering from something like this. He wore a wire for a documentarian who wanted to see what the conversations between members were like. The documentary makers got their stuff (“Vote for Me” is terrific, in part because of the senator’s undercover work), but Ellis was in deep doo-doo with some of his colleagues for a long time.

Geren might be right that the written rules don’t prohibit members recording their colleagues, but unwritten rules are important, too. You can’t win the legislative support of people who don’t trust you.

• Did you see the proposed new law — passed by the Senate but not yet by the House — that would take pension benefits away from elected officeholders convicted of public corruption penalties?

Legislators get a lousy deal on pay — it’s $600 per month, plus $190 to cover room and board and other expenses when they’re out of town on state business. But they get a fabulous pension deal that’s based not on their annual salaries but on the legislatively set annual salaries of state district judges, currently $140,000. Lawmakers who serve 10 years can start collecting their pensions at age 60; those who serve at least 12 years can start collecting when they’re 50, if they’ve left the Legislature.

Here’s the thing, though, if you think about the proposed ethics law change: Under current law, Texas officeholders found guilty of felony public corruption can still collect their public pensions. Some of the details are kept secret, but the state may be paying retirement to more than two-dozen convicts. Pat yourself on the back, fellow Texan: You’re even more generous than you thought you were.

• Did you see that developing battle over public records? Generally speaking, when the government is spending money, you’re allowed to see what they’re spending it on — who gets how much money from the state accounts filled by taxpayers.

But if the government in question hires a company to get something done, the accountability window fogs over — legally, according to the Texas Supreme Court. This started with that court’s ruling in June 2015, but it’s fodder for the current legislative session, where some lawmakers are trying to make public spending more visible to the public.

Businesses that contract with governments are pushing back; they don’t want their competitors to steal their tricks and contend opening their public business to scrutiny would lose them their competitive edge.

Maybe. There is also an argument that opening the records would drive down prices as competitors fight for business. Whatever: The real issue is whether taxpayer eyes are allowed to follow taxpayer money.

Lawmakers are arguing about this one, trying to find a line between unfairly opening business records to scrutiny while also letting taxpayers find out how much the city of McAllen paid for singer Enrique Iglesias, how many ride-hailing permits the city of Houston issued to Uber or how much a North Texas school district spent on its food service deal.

There will be plenty more of these: The Legislature is in town for three more months, and the pace of the session is accelerating. Keep your eyes open, and if you see something, say something.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • As policy, the proposed regulations for transgender Texan's restroom choiceshave some gaping holes in it. The politics, however, are easy to understand.
  • The safety net for Texas children has some big holes in it, and most lawmakers want that fixed. But it's going to cost money — a harder sell in a conservative Texas Legislature.

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