Open government gets another test in Texas House

Posted Saturday, May. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Issues of transparency and ethics in government and political campaigns have received mixed reaction from the Texas Legislature this year, but they’ll come up again Monday when the House considers an omnibus ethics bill.

It should make for some interesting debates between lawmakers who are for open government and those who just say they are.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, could use an amendment to the ethics bill to hedge against a potential veto from Gov. Rick Perry on a bill approved by the House last week. The bill would require certain politically active nonprofit groups to disclose names of large donors.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, could try a similar amendment to advance a cause that he has been unable move out of a House committee: requiring legislators and their close relatives to disclose any contracts they have with government agencies.

Geren’s measure has put him in heated conflict with one of the state’s most influential conservative organizations, the privately funded Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

Capriglione’s efforts grew out of his Republican primary campaign last year against then-Rep. Vicki Truitt of Keller. Reports surfaced during the campaign that Truitt’s local medical staffing business benefited from contracts with JPS Health Network.

Truitt said there was nothing improper about the contracts, which were part of business relationships she built with JPS before she was elected to the House in 1998.

Truitt could well be correct. Still, the disclosure requirements in Capriglione’s bill should become law.

Monday’s House floor action is scheduled to include Senate Bill 219, which, among other things, packages measures growing out of the state’s sunset review of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Geren has shown his mettle often on open-government issues. Tuesday, he carried another Senate bill, SB346, to a bipartisan 95-52 victory in the House and sent it to the governor.

SB346 was authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. It targets so-called 501(c)(4) groups, which have tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations, when they spend more than $25,000 a year on political activities. The bill requires those groups to report contributions of more than $1,000.

Last year, two such groups spent about $600,000 on political activity in Texas, according to a news release from Geren’s office. One of them is Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

“Donors have every right to give to political groups, but they should be willing to do so in the light of day, just like those who give directly to candidates,” Geren said in the news release.

Michael Quinn Sullivan is president and CEO of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. He’s having none of Geren’s arguments.

“Mr. Seliger and Mr. Geren want to open up every single donor to every single conservative group (home-school, pro-life, fiscal, property rights and so on) in Texas to be vulnerable to attack,” Sullivan wrote on his Empower Texans website.

Sullivan said SB346, if it becomes law, “will clearly be found unconstitutional,” citing the 2010 Citizens United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Citizens United clearly approved of laws requiring disclosure of political donations. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, which overturned laws that prohibited political campaign spending by corporations and labor unions.

“The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” Kennedy wrote. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

Still, a Perry veto on SB346 is considered likely because one of its provisions exempts labor unions from its disclosure requirements. Geren could counter by amending the bill’s language to the ethics bill, with the labor union exemption removed.

Watch how the House votes Monday.

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