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Texas lawmakers toughen ethics laws, governor praises reforms as ‘robust’

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott praised lawmakers for passing robust, meaningful ethics reforms.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott praised lawmakers for passing robust, meaningful ethics reforms. AP archive

Two years after lawmakers essentially snubbed his call for broad-based ethics reform, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday praised the 2017 Legislature for enacting a “very meaningful” ethics package that broadens transparency on public officials’ outside business dealings and strips convicted lawmakers of their offices and retirement benefits.

A compromise bill passed by the House and Senate late Sunday gave Abbott legislative approval on three of the six major ethics bills he championed at the outset of the session. The latest bill, sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, requires public officials to disclose their holdings in government contracts and expands disclosure requirements covering their business interests.

Three other Abbott-backed bills, as well as other ethics measures outside the governor’s reform agenda, were left for dead as the 85th Legislature ended its 140-day regular session on Monday. But despite the defeats, the overall work product was widely seen as an improvement over the dismal outcome of ethics legislation two years ago.

I’m very proud of the Texas Legislature for stepping up and passing what I consider very robust, very meaningful, substantial ethics reforms.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

“I’m very proud of the Texas Legislature for stepping up and passing what I consider very robust, very meaningful, substantial ethics reforms, making sure that Texas and our representatives and senators and those who work in the Capitol will be reflecting the highest standards,” Abbott told reporters in responding to questions at a bill signing.

Abbott said passage of the three bills now awaiting his signature was particularly significant in light of the fact that there was no sweeping corruption scandal to goad lawmakers into action.

“It’s highly unusual, in fact I don’t know if it’s ever occurred before in Texas history, where the governor has called (ethics reform) as an emergency item without there being an ethics scandal to be addressed,” he said.

Even as introduced this wasn’t major reform. ... There are miles and miles to go and apparently we’re going to go one inch at a time.

Carol Birch, legislative counsel for Public Citizen Texas

Watchdog groups gave a far less enthusiastic assessment, saying lawmakers largely missed the opportunity to impose more sweeping measures. “Even as introduced this wasn’t major reform,” said Carol Birch, legislative counsel for Public Citizen Texas. “There are miles and miles to go and apparently we’re going to go one inch at a time.”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, also faulted Abbott for not making a more aggressive effort to push ethics bills that fell by the wayside. “It’s half a loaf, and it wasn’t even the best half of the loaf,” McDonald said in reference to the three-out-of-six scorecard on the governor’s bills.

capriglione
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione got last minute approval of his ethics legislation. Andrew Buckley Star-Telegram archives

The Republican governor has made ethics reform one of his top priorities but a broad ethics package in 2015 crashed to defeat in an end-of-session stand-off on efforts to require the reporting of anonymous political donations known as “dark money.” The issue was off the table during the current session, giving Abbott and his supporters a less hostile atmosphere to press ahead with the governor’s ethics agenda.

“I think we made great progress,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, describing the outcome of what he called an “ambitious” ethics package. Abbott designated Geren to lead his ethics efforts in the House while Taylor was the chief ethics architect in the Senate.

Abbott has made ethics reform one of his top priorities but a broad ethics package in 2015 crashed to defeat in an end-of-session stand-off on efforts to require the reporting of anonymous political donations known as “dark money.”

Capriglione carried two of the House bills in the governor’s ethics program.

On Sunday, the House followed the Senate in giving unanimous approval to Taylor’s and Capriglione’s compromise legislation requiring public officials to list government contracts on financial disclosure reforms they file with the Texas Ethics Commission. Another provision requires public officials to report a greater degree of their outside business activity by lowering the disclosure threshold for businesses covered in the reporting requirements, from 50 percent to 5 percent.

Capriglione, as well as ethics watchdog groups, hailed the broadened reporting change as a significant advance in making public officials more accountable to the public. “This is a big deal,” said Capriglione. “This is one of the most important changes we were working on.”

The third-term lawmaker, who has made ethics and transparency a major element of his legislative agenda, also wrote one of the few ethics bills enacted into law after the 2015 session — requiring the disclosure of “interested parties,” those with a financial benefit, in government contracts of $1 million or more.

Passage on the next-to-the-last day of the 2017 session sent House Bill 501 to Abbott’s desk, where two other ethics bills are awaiting the governor’s inevitable signature — a bill by Geren prohibiting former lawmakers from using leftover campaign contributions for lobbying and a Taylor measure under which officials convicted of a felony would be stripped of their pensions and removed from office.

Other components of the governor’s ethics package passed the Senate but died in the House. The casualties included measures requiring lawmakers to wait two years before becoming lobbyists, prohibiting lobbyists from serving in elective office, and lowering the reporting threshold for identifying public officials who are wined and dined by lawmakers.

In addition to Abbott’s bills, other ethics measures also died, including a bill by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, that would have required the online posting of financial disclosure statements that are now filed on paper with the ethics commission. Another measure would have prevented the governor from awarding big donors with appointments to boards and commissioners.

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