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Analysis: Raising money while making laws in Texas special session

A special session of the Texas Legislature reveals a hole in the state's ethics laws, allowing elected officials in Austin to make laws at the same time they're raising campaign funds — from the people most interested in those new laws.

Bills stack up on the Senate dais on May 24, 2017.  The Senate is facing a midnight deadline to consider House bills less than a week before the end of the 85th Legislature. 

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Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t put ethics on the list for lawmakers to consider during their special session this summer. But he set them up to put their ethics on display for the rest of us.

Lawmakers will be able to raise money during the session. Don’t think they won’t. By putting 20 issues on the list, the governor all but guaranteed the presence of lots of lobbyists. There will be fundraisers galore.

The National Conference of State Legislators is in Boston this year. In August. During the special session. Road trip, anyone?

Look at the list of issues the governor put on the call and think of the people who’ll be attracted, if for no reason but to protect their own interests. Here’s looking at you, lobbyists.

Texas officeholders aren’t allowed to accept political contributions during regular legislative sessions and for certain periods before and after one. For the 85th Legislature, that blackout started on Dec. 10 of last year and will end on June 19. Expect a frenzy to start that Monday, as political folk hit their benefactors to write big checks before the end of the month.

There’s a mid-year campaign finance reporting deadline, see, and they want to flex their fundraising muscle — especially to show potential rivals how strong they are at the beginning of the 2018 electoral cycle.

That blackout and the rush that follows are regular features of a legislative session year.

But the ban on taking money while they’re passing laws doesn’t extend to special legislative sessions. The same interests asking lawmakers for consideration are allowed to give those lawmakers political money throughout. Another way to look at it: The lawmakers asking for money are the same people considering proposals made by the potential donors.

Unseemly, isn’t it?

If it makes you feel any better, lawmakers decided a few years ago to stop accepting checks in the Capitol building itself. It’s less convenient, but they’ll never again have to weather the bad headlines they got when East Texas chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim doled out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor during a special session on workers’ compensation.

When it’s over, lawmakers will be required to file special reports to show the contributions they received while they were in special session. At least we’ll know what they were doing during some of the hours when they weren’t passing laws.

And even though they’ll be in session, Austin won’t be the only place you’ll find Texas lawmakers this summer.

Not all lawmakers go to conferences, but a lot of them go to the annual meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council. This year, both fall during the Texas special session — coincidentally the hottest part of the summer — and will be held in the cooler climes of Denver and Boston.

Both have seminars and other work-related meetings, along with the perks common at most conventions. There’s a reception at Fenway Park, a James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt concert. And fooling around during a four-day conference might just be more enjoyable than debating and taking testimony on the 20 issues the governor put on the special session agenda. Watch for lawmakers taking mini-vacations — and for the ethics reports detailing how much Texas lobbyists spend at those events.

The lobbyists who show up at those gatherings would be there with or without a special session in Texas, but Abbott’s special-session call spoiled what might have been an offseason for them.

Special sessions can be diminished versions of regular sessions, with limited agendas that many of the regular legislative courtiers don’t care about. With his expansive list of issues, Abbott made sure a lot of those lobbyists will have to suit up this summer — i.e., any outfit with an interest in property taxes, public education or local regulation.

Lawmakers looking for dinner partners and political donors won’t have far to go this summer, whether they’re in the Capitol or at out-of-town conferences. Almost everybody who was in Austin to lobby for the 140-day regular session will be back for the special. One way or another — whether they’ve got something at risk or something to gain — they’ll be on call, feeding, entertaining and filling the campaign coffers of your elected officials.

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State government 85th Legislative Session Governor's Office Greg Abbott Texas Legislature