Efforts to restrict the influence of major political donors and shine the light on so-called “dark money” are lying in the ash heap of dead proposals in the Texas Legislature.
But as the 2017 regular session barrels toward its finale on May 29, a significant ethics reform package that Gov. Greg Abbott put on the fast track early this year remains viable.
It’s too early to say what will live or die, but every slice of reform anointed at the beginning of the session by top Republican leaders — from requiring more transparency of lawmakers’ private business interests to denying them pensions when they commit serious felonies — has a chance to pass before a midnight deadline on Memorial Day.
One bill that seemed dead — forcing lobbyists to say which power brokers they’re wining and dining — passed a major hurdle Friday when the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics unexpectedly passed the legislation ahead of a weekend deadline.
A day earlier, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said the bill — a version of which he sponsored — was going nowhere fast. The bill would close a loophole that allows lobbyists to keep secret the identities of the lawmakers and powerful staffers they entertain.
“I can’t get it to move," Geren said Thursday. "There doesn’t seem to be anybody as interested in it as I am and the speaker is.”
On Friday, told that the bill had been voted out of committee, Geren said prospects had suddenly improved.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has been trying to fix the loophole for years. Although the Legislature voted decades ago to require itemized disclosure of wining and dining, lobbyists get around the requirement with a little trick: get other lobbyists to show up to pick up part of the bill so together they can stay under the itemized reporting threshold of about $114. Then the public has no idea which politicians the lobbyists are treating to expensive meals and cocktail parties.
The loophole-closing fix that’s suddenly moving again — Senate Bill 502 by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano — would lower the threshold to less than $60 and require lobbyists to report the names of the recipients no matter how many of them pick up the check. Watson said he’ll be pleasantly surprised if the bill survives the long knives of the lobby.
“The feeling I had was it probably was not even going to get out of committee,” he said. “There are a lot of lobbyists that want this to pass. But there are few that don’t … and it’s hard to change the way things have always been done.”
The loophole’s fate now largely rests with House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and his chamber’s bill-scheduling Calendars Committee, which needs to send SB 502 toward the House floor this weekend if it’s to survive. And Straus has signaled his support.
“Speaker Straus supports the bill and hopes it comes to the floor of the House,” Straus spokesman Jason Embry said on Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, a bill that would take away pensions from elected officials who commit serious felonies appears to be one step away from Abbott’s desk, as is a Geren bill (House Bill 505) that would restrict lawmakers from using their campaign war chests to set themselves up in a new lobbying business once they leave office.
Another Geren bill that had been gutted and left for dead, this one forcing lawmakers to sit out one legislative session before lobbying their former colleagues, got resurrected in a new version of Senate Bill 504 and now awaits House action.
After watching ethics reform go down the tubes in the final stretch of the 2015 session, reform advocates are hopeful but wary.
“It’s not rolling smoothly, but everything is still up in the air, so we’re fighting hard to make sure we get some substantial reform,” said Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Two items that have been declared dead as of now: a bill requiring disclosure of so-called dark money and a proposal to restrict the power and influence of big donors whom governors appoint to oversee state agencies.
The term “dark money” refers to funds raised by politically active nonprofits to independently influence elections. It’s legal for certain nonprofits to hide the sources of their money as long as their political activity stays below a certain threshold, as defined by state or federal regulations. Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, filed a measure — HJR 112 — that would have let voters require the disclosure of dark money, but he said it was pointless to move it forward due to firm opposition in the Texas Senate.
“The two largest ethical issues we’ve got in this state are dark money and the pay for play in the governor’s office,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “And if we really want comprehensive reform we have to address both of those issues somewhere down the road.”
On the latter issue, Larson was able to get House approval of a bill barring governors from appointing people to oversee state boards and commissions if they contribute more than to $2,500 to the governor. The legislation, House Bill 3305, would also prohibit gubernatorial appointees from hiring lobbyists to influence legislation impacting the agencies they’re tapped to oversee.
But he said it’s stalled out in the Senate, where at least four senators told him they wouldn’t carry the legislation. He said reasons varied but included the fear that it would anger the governor.
“Oh well. We’ll continue on,” Larson said. “We’ll approach it next year.”
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.
- When the gavel comes down on the 2015 legislative session on Monday, lawmakers will have 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.