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Ethics reform now includes keeping revolving door to lobby wide open

The effort to slow down the revolving door between the Legislature and the special-interest lobby has hit a major snag: a "cooling-off period" for legislators is gone from the bill.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, works from his desk on the House floor during debate on the House budget on April 6, 2017.

A major pillar of Texas ethics reform — stopping politicians from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave office — appears to be crumbling in the final weeks of the 2017 legislative session. 

The author of the “revolving door” bill in the Texas House, Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, said he stripped out a provision imposing a two-year “cooling-off period” on state lawmakers who want to become registered lobbyists for special interests when they leave office.

Geren, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus and the point guy for Gov. Greg Abbott’s “emergency” ethics reform package in the chamber, said a cooling-off period would not stop legislators from going to work for private industry and attempting to influence their former colleagues.

He said they’d just call it something else.

“They’ll lobby anyway — they’ll just be 'consultants,'” Geren said.

He also told The Texas Tribune that some of his fellow legislators informed him they oppose House Bill 504 as drafted.

“Some say, ‘How can you tell me what job I have if I leave here?’” Geren said.

In place of the cooling-off period, Geren inserted a provision making it a crime for ex-lawmakers, for a period of two years, to misuse “official information” obtained while in office. The new version was adopted in the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee last week and is awaiting action in the Texas House. 

Geren said the provision would prevent lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from turning sensitive information they gained as legislators into a money-making opportunity.

But ethics watchdogs criticized the move, saying the bill had been gutted and calling the replacement vague and unenforceable. 

“It seems like the members are lobbying him already for their own self-interest,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group that tracks money and influence in state government.

Carol Birch, legislative counsel for Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, said she was surprised the bill had “been essentially gutted” before reaching the House floor, which she said will make it harder to pass any meaningful ethics reform this session.

Geren said the bill could still be changed as it moves through the process.

“You can say I gutted it if you want to say I gutted it,” Geren said. “None of this is done until it leaves the House floor, goes to conference and is signed by the governor,” he said, referring to a “conference committee” that hashes out differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation. “There’s a lot of work still to be done.” 

For the second session in a row, Abbott declared ethics reform a legislative emergency, but none of the major overhaul bills have made it to his desk yet. In the 2015 session, ethics reform imploded in the last few days of the session.

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