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Lawmakers take aim at Abbott on ethics reform, but he fires back

A bipartisan group of lawmakers called on Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday to add ethics reform to the agenda of the special session. The governor’s office, in a rare rapid response, quickly attacked the effort as “showboating.”

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, speaks to media regarding her request to add ethics reform to the special session on Aug. 2, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

With roughly two weeks to go in the Legislature’s special session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday to add ethics reform to the agenda. 

The governor’s office, saying the legislators should instead focus on the meaty agenda he's already laid out, quickly attacked the effort as “showboating” and accused one fellow Republican of pushing out "fabricated" facts. 

The fireworks began with a press conference called by GOP Rep. Sarah Davis, chair of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. Davis, flanked by both Democratic and Republican members of the committee, noted that Abbott had made ethics reform an “emergency” priority in the past two regular sessions. Though it's not currently on the agenda for the special session this summer, she said the need for reform is greater than ever.

As an example, the Houston-area Republican said she is moving forward this week with ethics legislation — including a bill that would close a major loophole allowing state lawmakers during special sessions to hit up contributors for campaign cash at the same time they’re considering legislation that could affect those donors’ interests. 

“I think we need to go ahead and close that loophole,” Davis said.

Such fundraising is illegal during regular sessions, under the theory that lawmakers shouldn't be simultaneously casting votes and taking campaign money. But there is no such ban during these 30-day special sessions called by the governor. House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, have voluntarily pledged not to fundraise during this summer's special session, but Abbott continues to seek donations in email solicitations.

Davis was joined by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who took a more direct slap at the governor. He said he is again pushing a bill attacking what he calls a “pay for play” system in the governor’s office when it comes to appointments to state boards and commissions.

Larson’s legislation would limit the amount of money an appointee could give a governor. Donors who give more than $2,500 would be ineligible to serve, though Larson said he’s considering raising the amount to $5,000 and putting the effective date as 2022 in a bid to garner Abbott’s support.

Larson said donors who give amounts well into six figures can receive the most prestigious appointments — such as spots on a major university’s board of regents. He said Abbott and his predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, have used appointments to attract huge sums for their campaigns. 

“I think it’s imperative that if we control both the legislative and the executive branch of government that we should reform the most egregious ethics violations we’ve got in the state, and that’s where people have to pay large sums of money to get appointed to highly coveted seats,” Larson said. 

Abbott spokesman John Wittman, minutes after the press conference concluded, blasted the two lawmakers in a written statement.

“Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the Governor’s call,” Wittman said. “Their constituents deserve better.”

A Texas Tribune analysis earlier this year found at least 71 of Abbott’s nearly 800 current appointees appear to have donated more than $2,500 to the governor’s campaign account since 2013, giving a combined total of at least $8.6 million. That includes megadonors such as Texas A&M University System regent appointee Robert Albritton and Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Kelcy Warren, both energy executives, who each gave more than $700,000.

Wittman accused Larson of distorting the facts, particularly when it comes to his own constituents who seek gubernatorial appointments. A fact sheet Wittman distributed showed none of the 21 people from Larson's San Antonio district appointed to boards and commissions by Abbott had given him more than $5,000, while at least three who did give more than that amount were not appointed. The fact sheet also noted Larson constituent Elaine Mendoza got an A&M regent appointment but has only given Abbott a modest $3,100.

"Mr. Larson’s fabricated comments are an embarrassment for someone who claims to be a champion of ethics reform," Wittman said. "His comments are a disservice to his constituents, and even more so to the appointees from his district who selflessly serve the state of Texas."

Abbott made ethics reform a top priority in both the 2015 and 2017 regular sessions. In 2015, the effort famously cratered, while modest reforms were passed in this year's regular session, which ended in May. 

Some of the reforms Davis and other lawmakers are advocating for the special session stalled out in the House, including legislation that would bar legislators from immediately becoming special interest lobbyists after they retire. Davis noted the bill died in the waning moments of the regular session and said it would have a better shot now.

“I feel like we’ll have a better chance of getting that to the floor and getting that voted out," she said. 

Another long-stalled ethics bill — requiring lawmakers' personal financial statements be posted online — passed the House this year but died in the Senate. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, expressed befuddlement that his efforts to get the bill passed keep running into opposition.

"I think in 2017 it just defies credulity that we don’t have our personal disclosures, which are public records, available online," Turner said.

Ethics reform advocates cheered the idea of getting another crack at curbing conflicts of interest and increasing transparency in state government.

"With Texas ranking as one of the worst states in the nation for transparency, campaign finance, ethics and public disclosure laws, the governor should follow through with his pledge to make major ethics reform a priority," Public Citizen of Texas, a liberal watchdog group, said in a written statement.

Abbott has put 20 items on the agenda of the special session, including a controversial bill regulating which bathrooms transgender Texans can use.

The governor, who has exclusive authority to call special sessions and determine what’s on the agenda, has said previously that he doesn’t plan to add more items unless the Legislature passes all 20 of the items on his agenda — a scenario that is considered highly unlikely.

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