Hey, Texplainer: If Angela Paxton is elected to Senate District 8, there are some untested waters both she and her husband will have to navigate. What are the potential conflicts of interest for a member of Texas’ legislative branch who's married to a member of the executive branch? And how can any potential conflicts be avoided?
Family members serving in the Legislature together is nothing new. Take the Democratic father-son duo from Brownsville, state Rep. Eddie Lucio III and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. Then there’s Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton — brothers who serve side by side in the state’s lower chamber.
But is there a conflict of interest if one family member, or spouse, serves in the state’s legislative branch while another serves in the state’s executive branch? We’ve seen this before, and Texans could get another glimpse in 2019 if Angela Paxton wins the Senate District 8 seat and her husband, Ken Paxton, reclaims his position as the state's attorney general. (He is being challenged by Democrat Justin Nelson.)
Angela Paxton won the GOP primary on March 6. If she’s elected in November — she’s the favorite against Democrat Mark Phariss in a district that leans to the right — legal experts and ethics lawyers say she’ll have to carefully weigh her options before voting on the state’s most important bill: the two-year budget.
Before the biennial budget can be sent to the governor's desk, lawmakers need to agree on a slew of measures, including the salaries of Texas' top officials. If elected, Angela Paxton would have a say in how much her husband — Attorney General Ken Paxton — takes home each year, including any increases or decreases to his salary. And The Texas Constitution requires members who have a direct personal or private interest in any measure or bill to both disclose that fact and then not vote on the measure.
“She’s going to have to think about what she does before she does it. If they’re doing [increases] for everyone, I don’t think that’s a conflict because everybody’s getting the same raise,” Hugh Brady, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “If it’s something special for the attorney general, I think she should step back and pause.”
This issue isn’t unique to the Paxtons. Similar questions arise in the lower chamber whenever state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, votes on the budget that includes the salary for his daughter, Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.
According to the House Journals, Tom Craddick has voted in favor of the past three budgets — each of which included a line item for his daughter’s salary. Tom Craddick was not immediately available for comment for this article, and his staff would not comment while he was out of town. Christi Craddick and her aides would not comment for this story.
“[The] Government Code allows legislators to vote on items that may impact their entire profession. It prohibits them from voting on something that may impact them specifically or personally,” said former Ethics Commissioner Ross Fischer, who consults candidates and groups on how to follow often-confusing state campaign finance laws. “Legally, as long as it’s affecting the business in its entirety, and not a specific person, it’s permissible under the law.”
The Paxtons and the Craddicks are far from the only examples. Many current and past legislators served while members of their families — spouses, kids, grandkids or siblings — were employed by state agencies. It's a list that includes state Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso, former state Rep. Tony Goolsby, former state Sens. Ken Ambrister and Carlos Truan, former House Speaker Pete Laney, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego and many others.
But what differentiates the Craddicks — and potentially the Paxtons — is that they’re not just approving a budget that includes money for their family members' salaries. They're voting to set those exact salaries.
One key difference between the Craddicks and Paxtons, however, is that Tom Craddick is not a direct beneficiary because the officeholder he's related to — Christi Craddick — is independent and lives on her own. But the Paxtons are husband and wife in a community property state, raising the question of whether her votes for his salary in fact benefit her.
“It’s always an option to [Angela] to disclose her relationship to [Ken] and abstain from voting, but to my knowledge, there’s no formal opinion that would obligate her to do so,” Fischer said.
Experts agree that when it comes to married couples, things aren’t clear-cut.
“There’s not any precedent one way or another, at least as far as Texas is concerned,” Buck Wood, a Texas ethics lawyer, told The Texas Tribune.
Under Texas law, most property acquired during marriage belongs to both spouses. State law also prohibits lawmakers from voting on a bill that would give a specific economic benefit to them or to their businesses — but the law gets fuzzy when it comes to general purpose bills like the biennial budget.
“Since Texas is a community property state, if [Angela Paxton] votes to increase her husband’s salary, she’d be voting to increase her own income,” Wood said. “That makes it more complicated.”
A spokesperson for Ken Paxton told The Texas Tribune that the attorney general’s office doesn’t have records of any formal meetings concerning potential conflicts of interest if Angela Paxton becomes a senator. And Angela Paxton recently brushed aside questions about any potential issues with both her and her husband holding state office.
“[We’re in] different branches of government and Ken and I are pretty like-minded people but we’re certainly not clones of each other,” Angela Paxton said in an interview with KXAS-TV. “All you have to do is watch us around the thermostat to see that we have our own opinions on some things.”
Asked what would happen if the two Paxtons differed on issues brought before the Legislature, Angela Paxton joked that “somebody might be sleeping on the couch.”
Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Angela Paxton’s campaign, said voting on the budget — and with it, the funding for the attorney general’s office — wouldn’t violate the Texas Constitution.
“Should Angela Paxton be elected in November, she will have a duty to vote on the state’s singular budget. Her duty comes from the voters of Texas who amended the Constitution instructing the 181 members of the Legislature to vote on the state’s budget in this fashion, from the voters of SD-8 and her legislative colleagues,” Holm said. “The law is clear on these matters: Members have a duty to vote on general bills such as those applicable to the entire state of Texas, the state’s singular budget being the most representative of a general bill.”
Brady, the UT-Austin law professor, added that as a freshman senator, it’s unlikely Angela Paxton will chair the Senate Finance Committee, which drafts the state budget. But, he said, both the Paxtons and Craddicks should monitor whether their personal relationships affect how they get items passed in the Legislature.
“I think that’s what [Angela Paxton] really needs to be focused on: Is she obtaining benefits … solely on the basis of her personal relationship?” Brady asked. “And the Craddicks would face the same thing. Is somebody getting something out of the other that they normally wouldn’t be able to get?”
The bottom line: Having family members serve in the Legislature side by side isn’t anything new. But when family members serve in the executive and legislative branches, legal experts, citing state law, advise caution, especially when it comes to potentially obtaining benefits solely because of their status in state government.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.