As reform advocates lamented the collapse of all but a handful of single-shot ethics bills, Gov. Greg Abbott strongly suggested that he was prepared to veto one of the most contentious measures – proposed disclosure of so-called “dark money” contributions to politically active non-profit groups.
A House-Senate standoff over dark money was widely blamed for the death of Senate Bill 19, an omnibus ethics package loaded with provisions to curtail conflicts of interests and strengthen transparency of lawmakers and lobbyists.
Although several, specifically focused measures were headed to Abbott’s desk when lawmakers adjourned Monday, early hopes for broad reforms had given way to disappointment and anger by the time lawmakers headed home.
“Legislators thumbed their nose at the state’s ethics emergency,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, one of more than a dozen groups that formed the Texas Anti-Corruption Campaign to lobby for ethics changes in the 2015 Legislature.
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The dark money disclosure requirement was included in a House version of SB19 but was unacceptable to the Senate. A 2103 bill requiring 501(C)(4) groups that engage in political activity to disclose their donors was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry. Abbott left little doubt Monday that he would likely do the same as he referred to a court opinion he authored in 1998 as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
“I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions,” Abbott told reporters at a bill-signing ceremony in the governor’s reception room. “And I think it’s important for legislators not to try to pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional.”
But the governor declined to say if he would veto a dark money bill, saying ‘I’m not going to hypothecate on vetoing bills that may never reach my desk.”
Abbott wrote the opinion in a unanimous Supreme Court decision that sided with Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a Corpus Christi non-profit that was appealing a lower court order to disclose its contributors.
“Compelled disclosure of the identities of an organization's members or contributors may have a chilling effect on the organization's contributors as well as on the organization's own activity,” Abbott wrote. The non-profit argued that revealing the donors would “impermissibly burden both its own and its contributors' First Amendment rights,” according to Abbott's opinion.
Abbott’s position could undercut hopes for ethics reform groups who were already looking toward resurrecting efforts to revive the dark money disclosure efforts in the next legislative session in 2017. Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, cited “poll after poll” showing a strong majority of Americans, including Republicans, support restrictions on dark money but said that Abbott is unlikely to change his mind unless there is “a significant public outcry or demand for reform.”
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who authored the 2013 dark money bill that Perry vetoed, was also a strong supporter of the provision in the House version of SB19. “I think that’s an important thing,” Geren said. “I think it was important to the people of Texas (that) I don’t think that the Senate had the heart to do.”
Asked if he would consider sponsoring a dark money disclosure bill in the next legislative session, Geren responded: “We’re not back yet.”
Abbott called on lawmakers in his mid-February State of the State Address to dedicate the 2015 session to ethics and tapped Geren to lead the effort in the House.
Most of Geren’s bills died but one measure – requiring public officials to electronically file the financial disclosure statements that they now mail or hand carry to the Texas Ethics Commission – passed both Houses and headed to the governor. House Bill 3638 not only modernizes reporting but gives citizens greater access review the finances of elected officials by making the reports available on-line in a searchable format.
Two other bills sponsored by Tarrant County lawmakers also made it through the Legislature and on to the governor’s desk.
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, passed a measure that would require all governmental entities to disclose interested parties – those who would benefit financially – in government contracts. Another, unsuccessful bill by Capriglione would have required state officials to reveal their involvement in government contracts but the Tarrant County lawmaker said House Bill 1295 achieves the same goal.
“I don’t think people appreciate just how sweeping this really is,” he said.
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pushed through House Bill 408 to prohibit state officials and employees from drawing a paycheck and a pension at the same time. Turner first introduced the bill in 2013 response to news report that Perry started drawing his pension at the same time he was collecting his pay as governor.
Closing the loophole, Turner said, was “an important step in restoring the public’s trust.”
Looking to 2017
As lawmakers and ethics advocates sought answers to the collapse of ethics bills, Geren and Capriglione said trying to push through a multitude of major reforms in one bill was a mistake.
“I don’t think there is any question that single shot is the way to do it,” said Geren. “Single shots don’t become Christmas trees.”
While most of the more than two dozen bills that were still in play last week ultimately died by adjournment, Capriglione said lawmakers nevertheless accomplished more than last session on the ethics front.
“It was a good exercise in finding out what we need to do next session as well,” he said. “You sometimes have to try the same things over and over until you get what you need.”