Gov. Greg Abbott was solidly behind ethics reform early in this year’s legislative session, so solidly that he urged lawmakers to “dedicate this session to ethics.”
But by last Monday, the session’s final day, it was clear that he only had some ethics reform in mind, not all of it.
In particular, he told reporters, he definitely was not for a crucial element that House members added to Senate Bill 19, the session’s primary ethics reform measure.
Abbott said would not tolerate a requirement for disclosure of “dark money.” The term refers to anonymous donations, often huge sums, to politically active non-profits.
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Such a requirement would be unconstitutional, the governor said.
Abbott’s knowledge of the law commands respect. He’s a former district judge in Harris County and a former member of the Texas Supreme Court.
For 12 years before becoming governor in January, he was the state’s attorney general.
But he’d have a hard time arguing anywhere outside of a news conference that dark money disclosure requirements are unconstitutional.
Plenty of people don’t like the idea, but eight members of the U.S. Supreme Court, in their 2010 landmark Citizens United decision on political donations, said states can require disclosure of donations meant to influence political campaigns.
Some states have such laws. Obviously, Texas doesn’t — and won’t, because SB 19 died in conference committee as this year’s lawmaking time ran out.
Abbott had named ethics one of five emergency items in his legislative agenda.
But apparently it’s not enough of an emergency to call legislators into a special session, which the governor can do if he wants.
“Legislators are going home today,” he said Monday, “and I do not anticipate them coming back until 2017.”
What was it that he once thought was an emergency? He described it in his Feb. 17 State of the State address:
“Things like requiring elected officials to disclose contracts they have with public entities, prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit, and more disclosure of campaign finance information,” the governor said. Those are all good goals.
“The most important commodity we have as elected officials is the bond we share with our constituents,” Abbott said.
“Transparency — and rising above even the appearance of impropriety — will strengthen that bond. Rejection of ethics reform will weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”
That “who we truly serve” part is the crucial element in the argument for dark money disclosure.
When voters are making up their minds about which would-be public official they want to form a bond with at the ballot box, they deserve all the information they can get.
If it makes a difference to them whether a wealthy abortion doctor is funneling money into a nonprofit supporting a particular candidate’s election or attacking the other candidate in the race, voters should be allowed to know.
It’s the same if the money is coming from an oil baron or a little old lady from Pasadena.
People who know about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision tend to remember the argument that political donations are a crucial part of free speech and the government shouldn’t decide who can speak and who can’t.
On that part, the court split 5-4 to allow unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions.
But with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the court also approved required disclosure of political donations, reasoning (much like Abbott) that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
In another 2010 case, Justice Antonin Scalia went further: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Ethics reform might come back in the 2017 legislative session.
If current members of the House hold firm, dark money disclosure might be a part of the discussion.
Others can argue against disclosure, but they can’t rightly say it’s unconstitutional.