On Tuesday, the Texas Senate passed a major ethics overhaul bill, SB 19. Spearheaded by State Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), the initiative carries the endorsement of Gov. Greg Abbott, who labeled ethics reform as one of his emergency issues. The legislation would expand transparency and disclosure requirements for state ethics reports by requiring elected officials and state officers to disclose contracts for goods or services with governmental entities.
State officials’ personal financial disclosure forms would be made available online on the Texas Ethics Commission website (though many already make theirs available on the Texas Tribune). Also, current lawmakers would be prohibited from becoming lobbyists for two years after they leave office and detail about their retirement income would have to be publicly disclosed—ending the often mentioned “revolving door” in which state officials leave the legislature only to return as lobbyists.
Additionally, state officials and legislators who are convicted of felonies while in office would be forced to resign, and lobbyists would no longer be allowed to split expenses for entertaining state officials to skirt disclosure rules.
“To have the honor of serving today, not only did our constituents give us their vote, they entrusted us to represent them above all else,” stated Taylor. “That’s why this bill is needed. It is an affirmation to the people that our efforts to represent them rise above even the appearance of impropriety or self-service, and that after the dust settles from important policy debates they have the confidence to know, in no uncertain terms, that we work for them no matter our party or position.”
Introduced as rather strong legislation, the bill was substantially watered down and weakened in the Senate State Affairs Committee. However, it was then significantly re-fortified on the floor with a number of pro-transparency amendments being offered.
Amendment 9 by State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), requiring drug testing of all candidates for public office, was adopted 22-9. If signed by Gov. Abbott, officials from schoolboard to State Senate would be required to take a drug test at the date of filing. The results would then be made available online with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Also accepted were two more by State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) that addressed the linkage between the legislative per diem and the amount that lobbyists can spend wining and dining lawmakers without disclosure, as well as a loophole that allowed them to skirt the rules. Lowering the limit down to $50 and removing the linkage comes as a sharp rebuke to the efforts of the Texas Ethics Commission to butter up lawmakers’ revenue streams in exchange for a budget increase.
A move backward came in the adoption of Amendment 13 by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Brazoria), which reigned back language that would have prevented lawmaker-lawyers from collecting referral fees. Instead, they will have to only disclose them on their financial statements. Taylor objected, and was joined by State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) and State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), but was outvoted by the body 27-3.
Upon passage of the legislation, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a statement supporting the measure.
“Expanding ethics requirements for our public officers is not only the right thing to do, but it instills public trust,” said Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. “Transparency in state business is a key factor to a sound and limited government.”
This measure comes as an additional step forward in transparency and accountability in state government. As has been the case with the vast majority of conservative legislation this session, attention will now shift to the Texas House, where it will be carried by House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). As always, citizens must remain ever vigilant toward government and demand that true reforms are passed.