A key part of a landmark ethics reform package is being gutted and replaced with a bill that would actually decrease punishments for lawmakers who break existing ethics laws.
A major goal of Gov. Greg Abbott, ethics reform died last session after lawmakers perverted it into an unconstitutional attack on Texans’ First Amendment rights. In a second attempt to pass the desperately needed reforms, Abbott named the issue an “emergency item” and the Texas Senate fast-tracked an omnibus bill by State Sen. Van Taylor (R–Plano) as well as five “single shot” bills made up of the bill’s components.
While the omnibus bill has been languishing on House Speaker Joe Straus’ desk without referral for months, the House versions of the “single shot” bills have been slowly inching towards a vote. But now one of those bills, House Bill 504, has been gutted before even reaching the House floor and replaced with a totally different bill that gives special privileges to former legislators.
As originally introduced, HB 504 by State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) would have implemented a “cooling off” period before an ex-lawmaker can return to the Texas Legislature as a lobbyist. A key part of any ethics reform, this change would have sealed shut the “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to jump out of office and immediately go to work as a hired-gun lobbyist.
But now the bill does nothing of the sort. Instead it is being used to decrease the punishment for legislators who misuse official information during the two years following their departure from office.
“You can say I gutted it if you want to say I gutted it,” Geren said in an interview.
The substitute to HB 504 actually decreases the application of an existing ethics statute that prohibits the abuse of non-public information for personal gain and grants former lawmakers a lower penalty for violating that law. Currently violation of the law is a third-degree felony. Under Geren’s substitute, former lawmakers could only be charged with a misdemeanor.
Geren’s argument for making the change is that ex-lawmakers would still be able to skirt the law if HB 504 passed and the bill would largely be unenforceable.
“They’ll lobby anyway — they’ll just be ‘consultants,’” Geren claimed.
But his argument doesn’t hold up.
Thanks to a Texas Ethics Commission that has broken free of its constitutional moorings, the ability of all Texans to petition their government has been sharply curtailed under the state’s lobbyist regulations. As was illustrated last year, not even TEC bureaucrats can write an invitation for citizens to come speak to them in their office without running afoul of their draconian lobby laws. If the TEC were a serious entity at all, ex-lawmakers wouldn’t be able to get by so easily.
Then again perhaps Geren knows the TEC won’t target people like him.
Currently the TEC doesn’t really prosecute actual lobbyists, lawmakers who skirt the laws, or other members of the ruling class. Rather, its efforts are focused on intimidating everyday citizens into silence.
Geren’s treatment of HB 504 is proof exactly why Texas needs serious, substantial ethics reform. We must close the revolving door between the lobby and the legislature and end the practice of giving special privileges to legislators who want to abuse their office for personal gain.