Editor's Note: This story has been updated with comments from Sen. Van Taylor and the office of Gov. Greg Abbott.
Moving a major piece of ethics reform toward the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas House voted Monday to strip government pensions from elected officials who commit serious acts of public corruption.
The legislation, Senate Bill 500 by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, would also require felon state politicians to vacate their office upon a final conviction.
The bill passed the Senate in February and still needs a perfunctory House vote before landing on Abbott’s desk. But the vote Monday all but ensures it will be approved and signed into law. The governor used his emergency powers to fast-track ethics reform at the beginning of the 2017 session, and this is the first major piece of it to get within signing distance.
“I hope it sends a very good message to voters that we’re serious about this, that we don’t want dishonest lawmakers in office,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who carried the legislation in the House. “We don’t want ‘em in there in office any more than the voters want them in office.”
Taylor, who had tried three times previously to pass a similar pension revocation bill, said voters are stunned to learn it's not already on the law books.
"Honest Texans are appalled to learn their hard-earned tax dollars fund the pensions for corrupt and criminal politicians sitting in jail for betraying the people’s trust," Taylor said. "There is still more to do, but with this momentum I remain optimistic the Legislature will pass the additional pillars and deliver to the people reason to have more confidence in their government. As I said when we embarked on the 2017 ethics reform mission: wide support, no excuses.”
The bill lays out a range of felonies, in the sphere of public corruption, that would disqualify elected officials (including people appointed to elective office) from receiving a government pension. Among them are bribery, tampering with government records and perjury.
The bill would not apply retroactively to elected officials previously charged with felonies.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group, applauded the passage of the legislation but said there's much more to do in the realm of ethics reform.
"It's one of the elements for some fundamental ethics reform, but it's not enough to say we solved our ethics problems in Texas," McDonald said. "But it's a good step forward. We need more accountability."
Lawmakers still have several more reform bills to consider — such as curbs on the wining and dining of lawmakers, more disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and restrictions on certain types of campaign spending.
Abbott first declared ethics reform a legislative "emergency" two years ago, only to watch it crater in the waning hours of the 2015 session.
The governor's spokesman, John Wittman, said Abbott looked forward to giving his signature to the bill.
"Governor Abbott thanks Representative Geren for his hard work and leadership in passing this important ethics reform measure that will safeguard taxpayer dollars, and he looks forward to signing this bill into law," Wittman said.
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