Do voters care about coziness in Austin? Let's ask 'em

Posted Monday, Mar. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Only the brave and the foolish go against the legislative pack -- even when they are on the side of the angels.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, in his first appearance before a legislative committee, got a full hazing as the author of an ethics bill that apparently sounds better to the people who don't have to comply than to the officeholders it would regulate.

Capriglione came to Austin with what seems like an idea born in a high school civics class: Write a piece of legislation that addresses something of concern to the voters who elected you. His bill would require lawmakers to report any business relationships between their close relatives and any government entity -- to show whether and how they and theirs might benefit personally from the officeholders' official work.

You would think he had tried to outlaw pecan pie, pistols or pickups.

The legislation wouldn't prohibit anything. It would increase officeholders' disclosure requirements. Capriglione said it would get rid of some of the trust issues politicians face. And he made the rookie mistake of saying he was inspired by the low opinions of federal lawmakers.

"If you are trying to address the lack of trust in Washington, why are you bringing a state bill?" asked state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, a member of the House State Affairs Committee. "Do you think we're unethical as members of the House?"

"No, but we have to set the bar higher and higher," he answered.

"Do you think this bill is more about things that happened in your political campaign, or good public policy?" she asked. "I see this being translated as a campaign vendetta brought to the Legislature." She said lots of members have tough campaigns but leave that behind when they get to Austin.

"These are things that have been brought to me by inside of my district," he said. "People understand that we have to have jobs. We have to go and we have to work. Sometimes those contracts have to be with local governments, municipalities. We should disclose those jobs, those opportunities, ahead of time."

That wasn't a popular point of view. And it was evident from the committee members' questions that they're irritated about the amount of disclosure already in place. In 2010, Capriglione ran for office, one of three Republican challengers to Keller state Rep. Vicki Truitt, also a Republican. She won, but he learned. He ran again in 2012, defeated her and came to Austin. So did she, reincarnated as a lobbyist.

One of the campaign issues was a business contract between Truitt's husband and the Tarrant County Hospital District. In Capriglione's version -- the version that got shouted to voters -- the juxtaposition of Truitt's official position and her husband's business with a taxpayer-supported hospital district was suspect. In her version, there was no link and nothing to worry about, in part because the hospital district gig started before she was elected.

Voters, for their various reasons, chose the new guy.

Now, his new House peers are blaming that race for his bill, suggesting it is meant to be insurance against a rematch with Truitt.

They could be right. This is politics, and these are the experts. It might be that disclosing ties between people in government and people who make their living doing business with government would be damaging to some people in political races.

The only way to test that theory is to tell voters whether their candidates and candidates' close relatives do business with governments over which they have influence. See whether the voters mind.

Ross Ramsey is executive editor of The Texas Tribune.

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