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Straus: Abbott should include ethics reform in special session

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is voicing agreement with two House members who want Gov. Greg Abbott to expand the special session agenda to include ethics reform.

House Speaker Joe Straus gaveled in a special session of the 85th Legislature on July 18, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add a House committee's votes on ethics bills

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is voicing agreement with some House members who want Gov. Greg Abbott to expand the special session agenda to include ethics reform. 

"I think they have some good ideas there, and I would like to see the call opened to some ethics reforms that the House wants to pass," Straus told The Texas Tribune, noting that he still wants to remain focused on the chamber's top priority, public education. "It's really important to the House." 

Straus made the remarks as he left a meeting with Abbott at the Capitol, two days after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick portrayed the speaker as the odd man out as state leaders seek to game out the special session. Straus said his meeting with Abbott was productive but did not go into details, joking that they discussed their "summer vacation together." 

A day earlier, a bipartisan group of lawmakers held a news conference to call on Abbott to expand his special agenda to include ethics reform, which he had declared an emergency item during the regular session. In response, Abbott's office accused two GOP lawmakers involved in the effort, state Reps. Sarah Davis of West University Place and Lyle Larson of San Antonio, of "showboating over proposals that are not on the Governor's call." 

The proposals include a bill that would prohibit state lawmakers from raising campaign cash during special sessions. Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have said they are voluntarily refraining from fundraising during the special session, but Abbott continues to send out fundraising solicitations while lawmakers are meeting at the Capitol.

"I think that Reps. ... Davis and Larson are truly committed to ethics reforms, some of which didn't get done in the regular session and some newer items that are worthy of consideration," Straus told the Tribune. "It's something we hope will be added to the call, but who knows?"

Abbott and his office have said he would be glad to consider adding other items to the call once lawmakers pass all 20 items that are currently on the agenda. 

Straus suggested the issue of ethics reform did not come up in his meeting with Abbott. "We only went over the items this morning that are of interest to the governor," the speaker said.

Hours after Straus called for adding ethics reform to the special session agenda, the House committee on General Investigating & Ethics, chaired by Davis, passed a slew of ethics-related legislation — including one that has provoked Abbott's wrath.

House Bill 33 by Larson would bar big donors to a governor from later being appointed to a state board or commission. The legislation has sparked some heated exchanges between Abbott’s office and Larson — and Larson didn’t hesitate to throw a little more gas on the fire while laying out the bill. During the hearing, he compared Abbott spokesman John Wittman to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

A day earlier, Wittman had accused Larson of producing “fabricated facts” about how much money appointees are giving Abbott before being tapped to serve on state boards and commissions.

“I think Sean Spicer works for the governor now because he’s saying things that were being said out of Washington. He’s saying we fabricated the facts,” Larson told the committee. “The facts lay in front of you.”

He was referring to a handout he gave to committee members showing 68 top appointees to Abbott gave an average of $87,000 in campaign money.

“Obviously we struck a nerve,” Larson said. “If we’re going to address ethics, this should be front and center.”

Wittman responded to questions about the hearing by referring back to his earlier comment accusing Davis and Larson of "showboating."

The committee also passed House Bill 19 by Davis, the measure to bar lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions while passing bills during 30-day special sessions. Texas legislators are currently barred from fundraising during regular legislative sessions that occur in odd-numbered years, but during special sessions they’re not restricted. 

Governors can call an unlimited number of 30-day special sessions.

Jay Root contributed reporting.

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