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Key lawmaker wants ethics reform on special session agenda

State Rep. Sarah Davis will ask Gov. Greg Abbott to put ethics reform on the agenda of the ongoing special session and said focusing on ethics would restore trust in the Legislature at time when it's diminishing.

State Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

A Texas lawmaker in charge of investigating wrongdoing and mismanagement in state government said Thursday she will ask Gov. Greg Abbott to put ethics reform on the agenda of the ongoing special session.

Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who chairs the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee, said having lawmakers focus on ethics issues would help “restore trust” in state government at a time when it’s dropping.

“As we are all well aware, ethics has been designated as an emergency item by the governor for the past two sessions,” Davis said during the committee’s first hearing of the special session. “And what better opportunity to work on substantive issues that will actually create more public trust than diminish it — [which] we have right now.”

Davis said she planned to hold hearings and vote out all of the ethics bills referred to her committee. In order for the Legislature to be able to consider and pass such legislation, though, Abbott would have to add it to the agenda — a request Davis plans to make formally next week.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. But in an interview with CBS Austin on Wednesday, Abbott suggested he would not add more items to lawmakers' plate until the Legislature approved all 20 of his current priorities. "We must go 20 for 20 before we address anything else,” he said.

Davis made her comments after her committee began digging into a controversial practice that came to light amid a series of controversies at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which prompted the departure of several top officials who resigned or were fired.

One of them, former General Counsel Emily Helm, had been fired — and deemed ineligible for re-hire — at the troubled Texas Youth Commission during a turbulent period there a decade ago. Helm said through a spokesman shortly before leaving the TABC that her superiors knew about her history at the TYC.

But during Thursday’s hearing, several committee members expressed exasperation that the state’s sprawling bureaucracy — with no centralized human resources department or detailed database — made it difficult to find out whether a prospective employee has a work history elsewhere in state government.

Rob Coleman, Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s director of fiscal management, testified that most state agencies store most employee records in hard copy and that records sharing across government is inconsistent.

“If you compare this to a normal company, with a bunch of departments inside of it, there would be one centralized HR group that would say, ‘Oh yeah, this is the same guy we fired three weeks ago,’” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, told The Texas Tribune. “It’s not just whether they’re fired, or whether they didn’t get fired, but also whether there were complaints or harassment. That stuff needs to be known, because if you’re relying on an individual to self-report, they may not.”

In light of lawmakers’ interest, Coleman said his office was considering designing a web application that would allow credentialed officials to quickly query lists of workers deemed ineligible for rehire at individual agencies.

State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, asked Coleman whether he could cite specific examples of employees on one do-not-hire list drawing paychecks from a separate state agency. Coleman said he had seen data suggesting that it's happened but could not recall specifics.

Davis jumped in.

“I can give you a list,” she said. “That’s why we’re having this hearing.”

One statewide personnel database would not only prove more convenient for background checks but also might prove more secure — compared to scattering records across hundreds of agencies, Capriglione said in an interview.

Capriglione cited a new state law that would penalize school administrators who refer teachers accused of sexual misconduct to other districts. “We should have a similar system" for sharing information, he said.

Davis said she is still trying to determine how widespread the problem may be.

“I think it could be a very big problem, particularly when you’re seeing some of these agencies completely outsourcing HR —  like the Health and Human Services Commission,” Davis said.

Still, Davis, a moderate Republican, said it’s too early to start talking about filing legislation to correct the problem. Taking a not-so-subtle dig at Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — staunch conservatives who have rattled business groups by pushing a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people — Davis said she wanted to gather all the information before deciding her next move.

“I don’t want to file something that’s not a real problem,” she said. “Like bathrooms.”

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State government Sarah Davis State agencies Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission