Advocates hope this is the year for tighter ethics laws at Texas Capitol

By Kelley Shannon
Austin Bureau, Dallas Morning News
Originally published 08 February 2013

AUSTIN — Dozens of new lawmakers, voter frustration with government and conflict-of-interest questions at a cancer-fighting agency could make conditions ripe for changes in Texas ethics laws this year.

Ethics watchdogs and legislators who want to limit lobbying by former lawmakers
and expand financial disclosures for public officials acknowledge it won’t be easy, but they hope conditions have changed enough that lawmakers will be willing to crack down on themselves and other state officials.

“The biggest obstacle is going to be legislators’ fear of people knowing too much about their business, and not just their constituents” but also political opponents, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, state director of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

Lawmakers also may worry that an ethics debate would depict the whole body as “tainted and dirty,” he said.

But the House’s large crop of freshman lawmakers injects a sense of idealism, along with anti-government voter sentiment, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics.

Proposed changes are coming from a small group of lawmakers from both political parties.

“It’s important for voters to know, for taxpayers to know, how we’re getting paid,” said freshman Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Southlake Republican who has filed a measure that would require state elected officials to disclose government contracts they or their close relatives hold.

“People are starting to lose faith in government,” he said. “Part of it is because there are some folks who have obvious conflicts.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who faced questions in her recent campaign about a local government transportation contract, is working with Capriglione to pass the measure.

Meanwhile, Davis and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, have filed competing bills to address potential conflicts of interest at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Other ethics bills would ban former lawmakers from lobbying the Legislature for one or two legislative sessions after they leave office and ban political contributions from the campaign account of a legislator turned lobbyist.

Major ethics legislation often becomes law only in response to a scandal, such as the Sharpstown affair of the early 1970s. But the Texas Ethics Commission — created after a different scandal in the early 1990s — is up for sunset review, the periodic top-to-bottom examination state agencies go through, so that brings the ethics debate front and center.

Proposals for the agency are expected to emphasize moving its focus away from candidates’ minor reporting infractions and strengthening the hearing process for ethics complaints.

Passing the sunset measure will require navigating a middle path between lawmakers who want more aggressive enforcement of campaign finance and other disclosure laws and those who believe the commission is a “gotcha” agency that engages in “a box-checking exercise,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, the Dallas Democrat who will help guide the bill in the House.

“I would be disappointed at the end of this process if this ethics commission sunset bill did not pass and we saw no change,” he said. If the legislation fails, the ethics commission continues to operate because it was created by a voter-approved state constitutional amendment.

Sen. Joan Huffman, who will play a large role shepherding the ethics sunset bill in the Senate, said some senators are ready for changes.

“Whether we can get enough consensus to get it done is the other question,” said Huffman, R-Houston.

In what’s shaping up as a possible clash, Anchia suggested a provision may be included in the House ethics sunset bill calling for online posting of officeholders’ personal financial statements. But Huffman opposes online posting. She said real estate disclosures would reveal home addresses to “anyone in the world at any given moment.”

“As public servants we certainly are answerable to the public about what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re also entitled to at least some protection, just for safety issues.”

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is offering separate legislation to post the forms online. Forcing citizens to request the documents or travel to Austin to get them seems “obstructionist, really, in terms of giving appropriate access to people throughout the state,” she said. (The news site the Texas Tribune has made them available online.)

Howard also is proposing to have personal financial statements list state officials’ pension income in addition to occupational income.

This week, a judge rejected an attempt by Texans for Public Justice to obtain aggregate pension data on 103 former lawmakers who became lobbyists, citing laws keeping the information confidential.

Gov. Rick Perry’s state pension was revealed only when he ran for president and had to file federal income disclosures. They showed a $92,000 pension payment plus a salary for a total state-paid income of $242,000.

Howard acknowledges many other ethics changes aren’t possible this year. She wants to build support by appointing a committee to study ways to further improve financial disclosures.

Those recommendations would be debated when the Legislature meets in 2015.
Follow Kelley Shannon on Twitter @kelleyshan.

AT A GLANCE — This year’s proposals
Ethics legislation introduced or expected this year includes the following proposals:

REVOLVING DOOR: Former lawmakers would be banned from lobbying the Legislature for one or two legislative sessions — that’s two or four years — after leaving office under different House and Senate proposals.

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS: State officials would have to reveal government contracts they or their close relatives hold.

PENSION DISCLOSURE: State officials would be required to disclose “unearned” income such as pension payments.

PERSONAL FINANCIAL STATEMENTS ONLINE: Personal financial statements filed by state officials with the Texas Ethics Commission would be posted online. Currently, the documents are public but must be specifically requested or obtained in person in Austin.

LOBBYIST CONTRIBUTIONS: Political contributions would be banned from lobbyists’ campaign accounts that were created when they were officeholders or candidates for public office.

ETHICS TRAINING: Lawmakers, state commission chairs and other key government employees would be required to take part in ethics training.

TEXAS ETHICS COMMISSION: A sunset bill governing the future of the ethics commission is expected to closely mirror Sunset Advisory Commission decisions made before the Legislature convened. Among those suggestions are revising descriptions of “simple complaints” to sound less like ethics violations; strengthening the system for verifying the accuracy of reports; and strengthening the hearings process for ethics complaints.

CPRIT: A seven-member committee would be created to examine peer review scores and make recommendations to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas oversight committee; the bill would also require CPRIT Foundation donation records to be publicly available. Another proposal would ban successful CPRIT applicants from making a campaign donation to the governor, lieutenant governor or House speaker for at least 30 days; it would also ban CPRIT from using donations to supplement high-level salaries.

OUT-OF-STATE TRAVEL: State officials using state funds for transportation or security outside of Texas would have to disclose the dates, location, cost and purpose of the trip. If the commission determines the trip wasn’t state business, the official would have to reimburse the state plus interest.