On the whole, ethics legislation hasn’t exactly captured the imagination of state lawmakers, despite Gov. Greg Abbott having urged them in February to “dedicate this session to ethics.”
That is, there’s no real fire under proposals to further legislate lawmaker ethics, things like requiring disclosure of business relationships and strengthening the hand of the Ethics Commission in enforcing lobbyist registration and campaign finance regulations.
But when it comes to regulating the ethics of other people, that’s a different story.
Freshman state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, told the Texas Tribune earlier this month he thinks his House Bill 3219, which would bar school districts from hiring lobbyists or contracting with associations for that purpose, has a good chance of passing.
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The bill is still pending in the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, but it has progressed enough to have been considered in a public hearing on April 9.
The premise, Shaheen says, is that elected officials back home should be talking directly to legislators, not using tax money to pay professionals to do it.
There’s some appeal to that. We’d all rather see as much of that tax money as possible going directly to educate Texas kids, not to steer legislation.
But there’s also a great deal of Polyanna thinking going on here.
Shaheen and others, including state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, say school district lobbyists could be using tax money to work against taxpayer interests.
That stretches credulity too far.
Think about how many harebrained ideas come out of the Legislature and compare that to how many times your school board members do something they didn’t honestly believe is in the best interest of students.
You can stop local officials in their tracks by voting against them.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley testified at the April 9 committee hearing, which also considered Shaheen’s House Bill 1257, which would similarly constrain lobby efforts by cities and counties.
“It seems like over the last decade there are several who would want you to assume that anytime local government does anything it’s against the citizens and against the taxpayers who elect us,” Whitley told the committee. “On a four-year basis they get a chance to turn me out.”
Texas Tribune writer Jay Root reported that school board members at the hearing pointed out just how impractical it is to expect them to handle their own lobbying.
“Trustees are unpaid volunteers in their communities and have duties not only in their jobs, but with their family and civic lives,” said Beth Walterscheidt, a school board member in Elgin.
“It’s not practical to expect them to track education legislation, to visit legislators’ offices, nor attend the numerous committee hearings throughout the legislative session.”
A lot of this work currently is handled through various associations in Austin that represent school boards and school administrators and others. Local districts pay dues, and those associations hire lobbyists.
A lot of it is watching out for harebrained legislative ideas, but there’s also a lot of working on behalf of good ideas.
If you have trouble thinking of things the Legislature does that hurt public education, just look at the various messes it has created during the past three decades when it comes to funding public schools.
For the seventh time now in those 30-plus years, a major school finance case is headed for the state Supreme Court. A district judge in Austin has once again declared the current system unconstitutional.
Every time so far, the Supreme Court has forced the Legislature to make changes.
And every time, those efforts were backed by local school boards trying to get the state to do things right.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830