Update, November 21, 2015, 9:00 a.m.: Due to updates to data in another state, Texas' rank has changed to tied for 39th overall.
In his first State of the State address to the Texas Legislature in early 2015, newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott challenged lawmakers to dedicate their unfolding 140-day session to ethics reform, asserting that “the most important commodity that we have as elected officials is the bond that we share with our constituents.”
“Transparency — and rising above the appearance of impropriety — will strengthen that bond,” Abbott asserted. “But rejection of ethics reform could weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”
If the GOP governor’s reading of the public’s attitude was on the mark, then chances are that Texans are more suspicious than ever. Instead of enacting the first sweeping ethics reforms in nearly a quarter-of-a-century, members of the 84th Legislature ended their session by passing only a handful of mostly modest ethics bills.
More far-reaching measures, including a host of provisions championed by Abbott, collapsed in a House-Senate stalemate in the final hours before the session adjourned. Buried in the impasse: proposals to boost transparency on wining and dining by lobbyists, toughen limited public disclosure requirements for state officials and candidates, and shine a light on millions of dollars in undisclosed donations to politically active nonprofits.
The paltry body of work on one of the governor’s top priorities enhanced the state’s reputation as a place where — at least in the eyes of watchdog groups — lip service on ethics trumps actual results. Lurking in the background are indictments against former Gov. Rick Perry — who stands charged with abuse of power after he vetoed funding to a local district attorney’s office in what some argued was a political dispute — and the current attorney general, who faces securities fraud charges stemming from his private work while he was a member of the state House of Representatives. Both have pleaded not guilty, and a judge tossed one of two charges against Perry.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the state earned a grade of D- in the latest State Integrity Investigation, a national assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.