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Bills would shine light on potential conflicts of interest

A House committee on Thursday discussed ethics reforms including measures that would give the public better and more easily accessible information about their elected representatives' potential conflicts of interest.

State Rep. Chris Turner, left, on the House floor during a budget debate on March 31, 2015.

Details about the personal finances and potential conflicts of interest of Texas lawmakers and top state bureaucrats are difficult to decipher and even harder to find.

Two bills heard at the Capitol Thursday, HB 1941 and HB 1942, would change that.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the legislation would modernize the personal finance statements top officials must provide each year and require that they be published on the internet by the Texas Ethics Commission. At a time when it seems almost everything can be found online, state lawmakers have ensured that their personal financial disclosures are not.

“In this day and age when you can pull up anything on your iPhone ... we should make that information available online,” Turner said.

HB 1942 would require the Texas Ethics Commission to publish personal financial statements on the internet within 15 days after they are filed. Given the multiple failed attempts at internet disclosure in previous legislative sessions, Turner will likely face an uphill battle before the session concludes on May 29.

Under Turner's HB 1941, state lawmakers would have to give more complete information about their financial holdings. In recent years, as major political figures like former Gov. Rick Perry and ex-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ran for federal office, the state’s loophole-ridden disclosure laws have been on full display.

In Dewhurst’s state filings, for example, voters had no way to determine the value of his main assets, such as the David Dewhurst Trust and Falcon Seaboard Diversified. Nor could they ascertain anything meaningful about his income from those sources, except that they provided him with “more than $25,000” a year.

After he ran for the U.S. Senate, the mystery was largely solved. From his federal forms, the public learned that the trust and Falcon Seaboard Diversified were worth more than $50 million apiece, a disclosure that allowed the media to calculate his wealth at about $200 million. Likewise, when Perry ran for president he had to disclose far more specific information about the value and sources of his income than he ever had to reveal as governor.

HB 1941 would modernize the ranges of reportable income and asset values — which haven’t been updated in decades. So instead of topping out at “25,000 or more,” the bill would require add a series of higher ranges, up to “$5 million or more.”

“The current reporting requirements don’t provide true transparency into elected officials or candidates’ financial interests and holdings,” Turner said. “If we’re truly interested in transparency and the public being able to decide for themselves if someone’s financial interests pose a conflict of interest, then we need to adapt our internal reporting requirements to be more precise.”

Turner's bills were left pending Thursday in the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee.

Earlier, the committee voted unanimously to send another ethics reform bill to the full House for a vote. HB 500 by Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would take lucrative government pensions away from corrupt state elected officials who abuse their office and are convicted of a felony.

The bill is part of a far-reaching ethics reform package that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, for the second session in a row, has declared a legislative "emergency." Two years ago, ethics reform died in the final hours of the session. The Legislature has two months left to pass the reforms before they suffer the same fate.

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85th Legislative Session