Texas passes ethics bill, but many proposed reforms are left on the cutting room floor

Reformers express disappointment over provisions stripped in 'dark of night'



Texas State Capitol

Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Mayer

This story has been updated.

When Texas’s biennial legislative session began earlier this year, many advocates for tougher ethics laws sounded an upbeat tone. Since a large crop of new lawmakers was coming aboard, some said at the time, 2013 was the year for bold reform.

But on Sunday, the legislature ended those hopes. An ethics bill was indeed passed, but it failed to include most provisions that watchdogs had pushed for. During a conference committee between the Senate and the House, lawmakers stripped several amendments that would have required online financial disclosure, exposed “dark money” in state campaigns and required lawmakers to disclose financial interests in businesses that receive state contracts.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a good-government group in Austin. “There were a lot of good things in there that reformers have been asking for for years, and all those were stripped in the dark of night.”

All was not lost for the reformers, though. The legislation, officially a reauthorization of the state Ethics Commission, did include several changes to the Lone Star state’s ethics laws. The measure will ban outgoing lawmakers who register as lobbyists from giving their unspent campaign funds to sitting lawmakers for two years, and directs the Ethics Commission to divide its cases into three categories, ranging from clerical errors to serious violations. The change will allow the commission to better manage its case load and devote more resources to serious ethics complaints, said Tom Smith, Texas director for Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The legislation also calls for a change in the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry: commissioners will now have to resign before running for another office. For decades, commissioners have pulled in huge contributions from energy companies while spending much of their time campaigning for another position, using the Railroad Commission simply as a lucrative launching pad, Smith said.

“Not only are the good government advocates like us sick of it,” he said, “but many in the industry supported it because they were tired of being shaken down.”

In a written statement, state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said it “includes substantial improvements in transparency.”

While that may be the case, state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, noted that most of the changes in the bill apply to other branches of government. “When it came time for making these decisions for shedding light on own our activities,” she said, “as usual in the Texas legislature, there was a tremendous amount of resistance.”

One of the more contentious provisions in the bill would have required nonprofits that spend on political campaigns, known as 501(c)(4) groups for a section of the federal tax code, to disclose the names of some of their donors. The legislature had passed a stand-alone version of the measure, but added an amendment to the reauthorization bill in case of a veto of the stand-alone bill by Gov. Rick Perry, who opposed the effort. But lawmakers removed the amendment Friday night, and the following day, Perry vetoed the stand-alone bill.

“It’s a tragedy,” Smith said.

Another controversial part of the legislation would have removed the ability of the Travis County District Attorney’s office, which is generally controlled by a Democrat, to investigate public corruption cases, leaving the jurisdiction to the Attorney General, who is usually a Republican. GOP legislators have pushed the move for years, McDonald said, to no avail. Instead, the legislature approved a study to look into the matter.

The provision governing post-legislative lobbying fell short of what some lawmakers had pushed for: a two-year ban on all lobbying activity after leaving office. Texas is one of 15 states that allow out-going lawmakers to register as lobbyists as soon as they leave office. This year, eight former House members registered as lobbyists, according to the Texas Tribune.

That failure was just one of many disappointments for good-government groups and their allies in the legislature. With the session now over, they’ll have to wait two years to try again, unless Perry adds ethics reforms to a list of issues covered by a 30-day special session that began Monday.

The bill now awaits action from the governor. Spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in an email that “as with all legislation, the governor is reviewing the bill in its final form,” and has not decided what to do, but McDonald said he expects Perry to sign the bill.

Update: (June 17, 11:33 a.m.): On Jun 14, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill. Perry said he supported some components of the bill, but that those changes were, "outweighed by several provisions added late in the legislative process without an open and honest discussion." He urged legislators to consider revisions before the next session "in an open, deliberative and transparent way."

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