Abbott: House Hijacking of Ethics Bill Unconstitutional

In an interview with reporters yesterday about the death of his landmark ethics legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott laid the blame for the bill’s death squarely at the feet of State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) and the leadership of the Texas House.

“It’s important for legislators not to try and pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional,” said Abbott.

Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both supported a major ethics bill, Senate Bill 19. Passed unanimously out of the Senate, the legislation would have, amongst other reforms:

  • barred legislators who were convicted of felonies from receiving taxpayer funded pensions;
  • prevented public officials from working simultaneously as private lobbyists; and
  • required politicians to disclose government contracts, legal referral fees, and other questionable sources of income.

However, when the bill made it to the Texas House, it was referred to Cook’s State Affairs Committee. Cook proceeded to attack the Governor’s achievement, deriding it as a “superficial effort.” In the name of “strengthening the legislation,” Cook loaded the bill with unconstitutional measures directed at the free speech of citizens.

Many of the changes Cook attached to the bill were contained in his failed House Bill 37, which would have regulated citizens, businesses, organizations, and churches that choose to speak out independently as if they were political action committees. Filers would have been required to report all non-commercial sources of income to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Abbott noted that he had previously ruled such measures unconstitutional.

“As a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions,” commented Abbott.

The comments were in reference to an opinion he had written on behalf of a unanimous Texas Supreme Court decision in 1998 holding that a state law could not be used to compel the disclosure of an organization’s private donor and membership information. The opinion was in line with a long line of US Supreme Court precedent.

While onerous, the disclosure provision was not the only unconstitutional measure added to the bill. Cook also added provisions aimed at suppressing the release of controversial hidden video shot by the American Phoenix Foundation (and banning future journalists from filming legislators in the Capitol). In addition was an amendment to strip citizens of their right to due process in lobby registration cases and a measure to remove shield law protections for journalists.

In fact, the version of SB 19 that Cook passed out of State Affairs literally violated every single clause of the First Amendment – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to petition government.

Not only did the version mount an all-out assault on citizens’ First Amendment rights, it actually gutted a number of provisions aimed at legislators. Brazenly, Cook removed the provision on public officials serving as private lobbyists and even gutted an existing provision designed to prevent legislators from voting on bills that directly affect their bottom line.

SB 19’s Senate sponsor, State Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) blasted the damage done by Cook:

“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.

Refusing to jeopardize the constitutional rights of Texans, Taylor offered up two constitutionally-sound options that would have allowed the ethics legislation to proceed. Rather than move forward on real reforms, the House chose to let the ethics bill die in conference committee rather than let go of their unconstitutional amendments.

As the clock ran out on ethics reform, Cook reveled in it, gloating to Austin media that SB 19 was “graveyard dead.” Taylor, on the other hand, called the bill’s death at the hands of Cook, “an embarrassing failure of leadership.”

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Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel for Empower Texans. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony received his J.D. in 2012 from UT Law School. While in school, Tony served as Senior Vice Chairman for Young Conservatives of Texas and helped manage its legislative affairs. During the 83rd Texas Legislature he served as Chief of Staff for Rep. Jonathan Stickland. Tony resides in Austin and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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