Legislation to create the state’s most comprehensive ethics reforms in a generation sailed through the State Senate with no dissent Tuesday, giving Gov. Greg Abbott an early victory on one of his top priorities.
The unanimous 31-0 vote sends the measure to the House, where Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is sponsoring a companion bill, HB1283.
“This is an an affirmation to the people that our efforts to represent them rise above even the appearance of impropriety and self-service,” said Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, as he presented the reform package, SB14, to fellow senators.
Abbott quickly released a statement after the final vote, expressing confidence that ethics reform may be finally heading toward legislative enactment two years he first presented it to the lawmakers.
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Abbott urged lawmakers in 2015 to commit that session to ethics reform, but a wide-ranging reform package collapsed during the final days of the session.
The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
“The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials,” said Abbott. “Representatives in Austin must be voting with their constituents’ interests in mind — not their own — and I am confident that this session will lead to increased accountability and meaningful reforms that are desperately needed in Texas.”
The proposed Ethics Reform and Anti-Corruption Act of 2017 was the first substantial measure to come before the Senate since the session opened less than a month ago, encountering virtually no resistance as senators embraced Abbott’s call to enact the first comprehensive ethics package since 1991.
The measure includes features to curb conflicts of interests, broaden disclosures of lobbying activities and make elected officials more accountable to the public.
Senators accepted an amendment by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, to reduce the penalty on lawmakers who violate a “revolving door” requirement, but the bill was largely untouched except for a succession of clarifying amendments by Taylor.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, withdrew a proposed amendment that would have expanded disclosure requirements for large gatherings — like tailgating — attended by lawmakers and financed by lobbyists. That was the only amendment that failed to pass and produced the only contentious moment of the debate.
“I find it offensive,” Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said of the amendment.
Ethics watchdog groups have largely embraced the bill but contend it fails to include other measures needed to provide more transparency and curb potential wrongdoing.
The Senate took a first step down the trail to a little less corruption in Texas.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice
“The Senate took a first step down the trail to a little less corruption in Texas,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. “We encourage the House to follow the Senate’s path but do a little bit better.”
He added: “Texas ethics laws remain riddled with deep chasms and dark holes that still need to be filled.”
Sen. Jose R. Rodriguez, R-El Paso, told Taylor that he was “very happy” to support the bill but expressed disappointment that it excluded other provisions backed by reform advocates, including a provision requiring politically active nonprofits to disclose now-anonymous donors.
The so-called dark money provision was purposefully left out of this year’s reform package after it was blamed for bringing down the 2015 bill.
Abbott put this year’s measure on a fast track by tagging it as an emergency item during his hourlong State of the State address last week.
Key components include removing corrupt elected officials from office and stripping them of pensions, widening disclosure required for lobbyists who entertain lawmakers, and requiring lawmakers to sit out a session before they can become lobbyists.
Two other provisions, which are also duplicated in House bills sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would require lawmakers to disclose government contracts and would prevent lobbyists from serving simultaneously in elective office.