Harless Claims Hijacked Ethics Bill “Was Never Going to Pass”

Just days after the end of the 84th legislative session, one state representative is admitting that provisions added to Gov. Greg Abbott’s landmark ethics legislation by the leadership of the Texas House were designed to kill the bill.

State Rep. Patricia Harless (R–Spring) took to her Facebook account to defend her vote in favor of provisions added to Senate Bill 19 that would have prohibited citizens from recording elected officials at the Capitol. The filming prohibition and other measures that Governor Abbott has labeled “unconstitutional,” were added in committee to Senate Bill 19 – an omnibus ethics bill directed at shining light on the financial dealings of state legislators.

Harless voted to add the unconstitutional language to the bill in the State Affairs committee and supported the provisions on the floor of the House as well. Yet she is now telling constituents that the “version of SB 19 that came to the House floor was never going to pass both chambers.”

Senate Bill 19 contained a number of provisions that would have shed light on legislators’ conflicts of interests. The version of the bill that was passed unanimously by the Senate and praised by Gov. Abbott would have stripped legislators who were convicted of bribery and abuse of office from collecting their taxpayer-funded pensions. It also would have prohibited public officials from simultaneously working as lobbyists for private interests, and would have required legislators to disclose when they received legal referral fees or made money on government contracts.

Lawmakers in other states such as New York have been criminally prosecuted for bribery schemes involving the abuse of legal referral fees.

When the bill went to the House State Affairs Committee, however, Harless and Chairman Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) watered down the elements directed at legislators and slapped on provisions attacking citizen journalists and other groups. Along with banning recording in the capitol, the substituted bill would have required individuals, businesses, organizations, and churches that engaged in independent political speech about candidates or measures (such as local bond elections or referendums) to disclose all sources of non-commercial income.

Gov. Abbott blasted the House-added provision as unconstitutional. Some critics noted that it would have required churches active in the fight against the Houston gender-neutral restroom ordinance to disclose the name and address of every person who put money in the church’s collection plate and the amount of their tithe.

When SB 19 reached the House floor, conservative State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R–Irving) offered a complete floor substitute that would have reverted the bill back to the original version passed by the Texas Senate, the one that would have delivered true ethics reform rather than use government to target citizens. That amendment, which would have allowed the House to pass a clean ethics bill, was defeated on a vote of 33-113.

When the bad House version of SB 19 went to conference committee, Senators offered to work with the House to craft a compromise directed at legislators (though still potentially watered down). But House negotiators refused to budge, and declared that the bill was “graveyard dead” if it didn’t include the unconstitutional elements.

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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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