Editorials

Geren takes a strategic approach to ethics reform

THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Texas Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, center, and other lawmakers are sworn in Tuesday during the beginning of the 85th Texas Legislative session at the Texas State Capitol in Austin.
Texas Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, center, and other lawmakers are sworn in Tuesday during the beginning of the 85th Texas Legislative session at the Texas State Capitol in Austin. AP

Ethics reform proposals in the Texas Legislature, aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists and ending the tendency of some lawmakers to ignore or hide their own conflicts of interest, are on track for approval in this year’s legislative session.

Of course, the session started only last week. By the time it ends May 29, thousands of bills that once may have seemed to be sure bets will have fallen away.

Ethics reform seemed destined for passage two years ago. Gov. Greg Abbott was behind it and even urged legislators to dedicate the session to ethics.

They dedicated it, debated it, even voted on it — they just didn’t pass it.

Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, a powerful member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, will again spearhead this year’s House efforts for ethics reform, and he clearly plans to get it done this time.

A key part of his strategy is to avoid the contentious issue that sank the ethics ship two years ago.

It’s a hard issue to stay away from if you really want to ensure transparency and promote confidence in state government: so-called dark money financial contributions from unnamed donors.

Some nonprofits can accept money — big money — and spend it for political purposes without disclosing where that money came from. It can sway elections and influence legislation.

Two years ago, the House favored disclosure of dark money donors, but the Senate didn’t. The disagreement festered, and ethics reform died.

Geren told The Texas Tribune the same thing could happen this year. So he and state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who is spearheading the ethics reform effort in the Senate, plan to steer clear of dark money.

They’ll also avoid packaging ethics proposals together, filing “single-shot” bills on discrete topics. The topics will be those that gained widespread legislative support two years ago:

▪ Revoking generous state pensions paid to legislators and other politicians who are convicted of felonies.

▪ Requiring legislators to disclose government contracts they may be involved in.

▪ Closing a loophole that allows excessive spending by lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers.

▪ Making retired legislators sit out at least one session before working as lobbyists.

It’s all good — but don’t give up on one day shining a light on dark money.

  Comments