The Texas State Senate on Tuesday passed an omnibus bill including many of the initiatives from Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency item on ethics reform. In his State of the State Address in February, the Governor repeated a campaign promise to address transparency and ethics in Texas government. Tuesday marked delivery on that promise.
While campaigning, Abbott promised that he would take aggressive action on ethics reform in the Texas Legislature. As reported by Breitbart Texas Senior Political News Contributor Bob Price in February, Abbott said during his State of the State Address that he wanted to dedicate the upcoming session to ethics. Abbott said “I want to work with you to strengthen the faith and the trust Texans deserve from us. It’s a reminder of who we work for – the citizens of Texas.”
“The most important commodity we have as elected officials is the bond we share with our constituents,” Abbott continued. “Transparency – and rising above even the appearance of impropriety – will strengthen that bond. Rejection of ethics reform will weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve – ourselves, or the people of Texas.”
In a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas after the bill’s passage, Governor Abbott applauded the Texas Senate for passing a meaningful ethics reform package. He said he looked forward to working with the House to enact these ethics reforms into law.
The ethics bill was authored by Senator Van Taylor (R-Collin County). Taylor is a former member of the Texas State House of Representatives.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick issued Taylor’s ethics package a low bill number, indicating it was a top priority for the Senate. Patrick had this to say about the passage of the bill: “Expanding ethics requirements for our public officers is not only the right thing to do, but it instills public trust. Transparency in state business is a key factor to a sound and limited government. Senator Van Taylor has done an outstanding job in the Texas Senate by helping eliminate conflicts of interest that could tarnish our government’s image, hurt the public’s trust, and threaten our democracy.”
“To have the honor of serving today, not only did our constituents give us their vote, they entrusted us to represent them above all else,” said Taylor, in a statement on passage of the omnibus ethics reform package obtained by Breitbart Texas. “That’s why this bill is needed. It is an affirmation to the people that our efforts to represent them rise above even the appearance of impropriety or self-service, and that after the dust settles from important policy debates, they have the confidence to know – in no uncertain terms – that we work for them no matter our party or position. I am very proud of the Texas Senate for working together and delivering to the people a reason to be more confident in their state government.”
The freshman Senator remained calm during what, at times, became a rather heated debate on the Senate floor. Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) took angry exception to Taylor’s reference to scandals in New York, while Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) quipped, “We have to be careful about things from New York. They don’t even make good hot sauce.”
The Senate debate lasted over three hours. At one point, Senator Huffman warned her colleagues to “slow down” before “slapping on” amendments that would result in huge “policy shifts.” She also urged her fellow Senators to not require posting of information on the Internet that would put themselves, or other Legislators, at risk.
Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) warned his colleagues against “setting up a bull’s eye for the Senators and their families.” He said he knew of two cases in which family members of representatives were kidnapped, and one of them was killed. Senator Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) likewise warned against transparency “to the extent it is unsafe.”
A key element of the ethics reform legislation is additional disclosure requirements for state ethics reports. Every elected official or candidate and state officer would have to disclose contracts for either goods or services with governmental entities, professional consulting, or legal services above a specified amount.
Senate Bill 19 also prohibits a former member of the Texas legislature from lobbying for two years after they leave the legislature. It operates to prevent a member of the Texas Legislature, United States Congress, or statewide office holder from registering as a lobbyist during this period and it is designed to inhibit conflicts of interest.
The Bill requires state officers, and candidates for state office, to disclose bond counsel services to a public issuer, disclosing specific information about the issuances to which they are counsel, and the fees paid for those services. It would prohibit elected officers from registering as lobbyists.
The bill includes a requirement for state officers and candidates to disclose legal referral fees. The original version would have prevented attorney legislators from engaging in any legal referrals. An amendment proposed by Senator Joan Huffman offered a compromise on this requirement that was overwhelmingly accepted by Senate members. Senator Sylvia Garcia, a lawyer and former judge, said that although she has not practiced law since the 1980’s, it troubled her that lawyers were being singled out. She noted that prior legislative scandals involved real estate, stock offerings, and commissions in other services, and she specifically named the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry and 1970’s Sharptown scandals.
State officers and candidates for state office would be required to disclose all sources of income not currently required to be reported, such as public benefits or a pension. Personal financial statements filed by state officers and candidates would be submitted electronically through a website that builds a searchable database.
The Senators approved submitting themselves and all candidates for office to drug tests, the results which would be submitted to the Texas Ethics Commission and published for public review.
Lobbyists would have to file detailed reports listing any member of the legislative or executive branch who benefitted from an expenditure that exceeds $50.00 per individual per day. The amount required for disclosure currently is $114. Lobbyists would be prohibited from “splitting” costs to avoid disclosure, by requiring disclosure if the total value of the benefit exceeds the $50 per person per day cap.
State officers would be prohibited from receiving any financial compensation or other benefit from holding a position with a financial institution.
Any representative with a felony conviction that became final, after the appellate process had run its course, would be automatically ejected from serving in the Legislature. Examples of Legislators who were permitted to continue serving after felony convictions were cited during the debate.
There were times during the long debate that Senators took offense at any implication of ethics problems under the current system. “You’re incriminating honest people,” Senator Joan Huffman said to Senator Van Taylor at one point.
The longest serving member of the Senate, Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), told the freshman author of the bill that “this is not the ethics reform of a generation.” Whitmire asserted that “prior to 1973, anything was game,” and major reforms were made after scandals of that era.
Strong support for the new ethics reforms came from Senators such as Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), who told Breitbart Texas, “Texas should lead the nation in the adoption of strict ethical standards for elected officials. Our founders always intended Texas legislators to earn a living in the private sector. The public, however, expects a bright-line on transparency, and the Texas Senate delivered those results today.”
Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) told Breitbart Texas, “With several amendments passed, Senator Taylor’s overall ethics package now goes to the House for approval. This shows Senate leadership on another issue of importance and of complexity to actually implement in a fair fashion.”
Representative Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) is carrying a bill in the Texas House that contains many elements of Governor Abbott’s ethics initiative.
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2