State Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) expressed astonishment on Wednesday night for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms of elected officials in the House. Instead of finding additional opportunities for ethics reform focused on elected officials, the House elected to pursue more regulations against the free speech of private citizens.
“The purpose of the Senate’s ethics package, which was applauded by Governor Abbott who placed this charge on his emergency call, is to put a mirror on elected officials and affirm to the people that our efforts to represent them rise above even the appearance of impropriety or self-service,” stated Taylor.
“Some in the House apparently don’t think elected officials are the problem and instead muddled the bill with a litany of bizarre measures that point the finger at everyone besides themselves, including a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook to launch an assault on the First Amendment. This is one of those head shaking moments that rightfully raise doubts in the minds of our constituents as to the Legislature’s resolve to serve the people above all else.”
In Gov. Abbott’s State of the State Address, he challenged legislators to “strengthen the bond” elected officials share with their constituents.
The Senate version of SB19 concentrated solely on elected officials providing increased transparency of government officials and terminating conflicts of interest. Key provisions included the disclosure of government contracts, disclosure of bond counsel, disclosure of legal referral fees, prohibiting elected officials from simultaneously being lobbyists, closing loopholes to evade disclosure of expensive meals paid for by lobbyists, automatically ejecting felons from serving in the Legislature, and instituting a one full legislative session “cooling off” period before members of the Legislature may become lobbyists.
The House sponsor, State. Rep. Bryon Cook (R-Corscicana), has characterized these measures as “superficial.”
After the Senate passed SB 19 unanimously, Gov. Abbott praised the Senate saying, “I applaud the Texas Senate for passing a meaningful ethics reform package. SB 19 reinforces the faith and trust that Texans deserve to place in their government, and it ensures that we remain focused on who we truly serve – the people of Texas. I look forward to working with the House to enact these ethics reform into law.”
However, the House State Affairs Committee morphed the bill from meaningful ethics reform of government officials to attacks on civil liberties and additional protections for elected officers. The changes were so out of line with the original purpose of the bill that the House committee had to change the bill’s caption. Instead, the House reached for non-germane and unconstitutional provisions including the forced disclosure of donors of non-profit organizations in order to engage in political speech.
This provision has been championed by liberal groups and is a key platform of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President. It was vetoed last year by then-Governor Rick Perry and harshly criticized by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Before a Texas House State Affairs Committee hearing Sen. Cruz weighted in on the issue stating, “Today the Texas Legislature is holding a hearing on requiring outside groups to disclose their donors to engage in political speech. That would be a disastrous policy that would unconstitutionally chill free speech. President Obama and U.S. Senate Democrats have been trying to enact this wrongheaded law for years at the federal level.”
Cruz added, “the Texas Legislature should not enact these pernicious laws at the state level.”
Senate Bill 19 now moves back to the Senate where Sen. Taylor maintains that he hopes to find areas of common ground, but has made it clear he will not accept any effort to, “weaken the First Amendment, chill free speech, or restrict the ability of individuals to engage in the political or legislative process.”
It is unclear if Chairman Cook will kill the ethics package over the provisions he added aimed at non-elected officials.