Texas House Lagging on Ethics Reform

Early in the session, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared genuine ethics reform for lawmakers one of their top priorities. Patrick followed through and a landmark ethics reform bill passed out of the Senate unanimously in early February. But since then, the bill has languished on the speaker’s desk and its House counterparts have seen limited action.

For years, conservatives have demanded genuine ethics reform to shine a greater light on the finances of public officials who are abusing their legislative privileges for personal gains. However, those reforms have been repeatedly killed by lawmakers who have sabotaged the legislative process in order to protect the special privileges of their offices.

Last session, an omnibus ethics package authored by State Sen. Van Taylor (R–Plano) and backed by Gov. Abbott unanimously passed the Texas Senate, but was hijacked and perverted into an all-out attack on free speech by State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana).

After accusing Cook of “[muddling] the bill with a litany of bizarre measures” and “[launching] an assault on the First Amendment,” Taylor was ultimately forced to scuttle his own legislation in order to prevent Cook and other lawmakers from seizing it for their crusade against Texans’ liberties.

This January, Taylor returned to the Texas Legislature for another bite at the apple, authoring Senate Bill 14 and cleverly tailoring a strategy to push forward with the legislation by using lawmakers’ own words and votes against them.

“Recognizing the legislative vulnerability of an ethics reform omnibus bill, last session’s votes offer a road map to navigate the turbulent topic,” wrote Taylor in an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News. “By patching together measures that gained overwhelming support, but did not make it through the full process, the 85th Legislature can do the people’s work without the unnecessary theatrics.”

What Taylor is referring to are the core elements that lawmakers quietly seethe about but cannot publicly oppose. Those reforms are the keystones of ethics reform, such as requiring lawmakers to disclose government contracts, reining in lobbyist wining and dining, terminating conflicts of interest, implementing a “cooling off period” before lawmakers can lobby the Legislature, and revoking pensions from corrupt politicians.

Each of those components was included in Taylor’s omnibus bill, SB 14, but also written as stand-alone bills at the request of House lawmakers who authored companions with identical numbers (SB/HB’s 500, 501, 502, 503, 504, 505) and pledged to work in good faith to pass the measures. The lawmakers working with Taylor include House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) who has pledged to keep “poison pills” like those unconstitutional speech regulations inserted by Cook from making their way into the bill again.

But despite the rhetoric and promises, almost all of the components of ethics reform are languishing in the Texas House.

Each measure was marked an “emergency item” by Abbott, a maneuver that allows lawmakers to more quickly get to work on the legislation, and the Texas Senate responded. Indeed, the omnibus ethics bill was the first bill passed by the upper chamber and the “single shots” followed soon after.

Since then they’ve been stalled out.

SB 14, the omnibus bill, has been collecting dust on House Speaker Joe Straus’ desk for months and while each “single shot” Senate Bill was referred to the General Investigating & Ethics Committee, Chair Sarah Davis (R–Houston) has refused to hold a hearing on any of them.

The only items that have moved have been the House companions authored by State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) and Giovanni Capriglione (R–Keller), but all of them have yet to pass the Texas House.

  • HB 500 which prevents lawmakers convicted of felonies from drawing a pension passed out of committee earlier this month but has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the floor by the Calendars Committee
  • HB 501 which requires lawmakers to disclose government contracts passed out of committee earlier this month but has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the floor by the Calendars Committee
  • HB 502 which limits lobbyists’ ability to wine and dine elected officials has not been voted out of committee
  • HB 503 which prohibits lawmakers from registering as lobbyists while in office has not been voted out of committee
  • HB 504 which implements a “cooling off” period before an ex-lawmaker can return to the Texas Legislature as a lobbyist passed out of committee earlier this month but has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the floor by the Calendars Committee
  • HB 505 which prevents former lawmakers from using their campaign accounts to pay for expenses incurred while lobbying passed out of committee earlier this month but has yet to be scheduled for a vote on the floor by the Calendars Committee

As Gov. Abbott said in his State of the State address, “the faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials. That trust is eroded if they perceive that elected officials are acting in anything other than the people’s best interests.”

It’s past time for the House to act to strengthen ethical standards for elected officials. Citizens should demand that they fast-track these overdue reforms immediately.

Tell the Legislature: We Demand Genuine Ethics Reform!

Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made genuine ethics reform for lawmakers one of their top priorities this year. We must eliminate and expose conflicts of interest and self-dealing. We need to restore the public trust in state government by removing those legislators who are abusing their offices for their own private gain.

Genuine ethics reform will require legislators and other public officials to disclose the contracts they and their families have with state and local governments. It will ban public officials from working as lobbyists while in office and will end the revolving door between the legislature and the lobby by requiring former public officials to undergo a cooling-off period before advocating for private causes.

Ethics reform will require public officials who are attorneys to disclose the fees they earn as bond counsel and any legal referral fees they receive. Reform will also impose a hard cap on the amount of undisclosed gifts a public official can receive from a lobbyist.

Finally, ethics reform should eliminate pensions for legislators and, until that can be done, the pensions should be de-coupled from the salaries of district judges. Legislators should not be allowed to hide pay raises for themselves behind salary increases for judges.

Will you help us continue the fight for genuine ethics reform?

Spread the message! We need genuine ethics form in state government!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cary Cheshire serves as Vice President of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, the premier project of Empower Texans. A 6th Generation Texan, Cary attended Texas A&M University was active in a number of conservative causes including Ted Cruz's Senate campaign. He has also worked on campaigns to elect conservatives to both Congress and the Texas Legislature. Cary enjoys college football, genealogy research, and the occasional craft beer.

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