If you hang around the Capitol long enough, this is what you’ll see: legislators who are also insurance agents carrying bills that would reduce the rights of insurance claimants; legislators involved in the oil and gas industry voting on laws that will keep cities from regulating fracking; and legislators who own pay-day lending services leading the opposition to bills that would regulate their businesses.
They’re using their offices to enrich themselves and their clients, often at the expense of Texas citizens.
In the last decade, public officials have been involved in more than a dozen major scandals and controversies — paybacks to political donors, conflicts of interest and the revolving doors between the public and private sectors. When you add up all the money lost in kickbacks, bungled contracts and sheer bad management, the cost to taxpayers is colossal — more than $1 billion.
Corruption has reached such immense proportions that Gov. Greg Abbott declared ethics reform an “emergency” issue for the 2015 legislative session. With only a week left, the Legislature has yet to pass a significant reform bill, but there’s still time.
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This week, the House will debate the Senate’s ethics omnibus bill, Senate Bill 19. This legislation could bring the first major political reform in 20 years and relief for Texans from one of the highest corruption taxes in the nation.
But the House must strengthen the bill. What emerges this week must go much further than the Senate’s package — legislation that House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook described as a “one of the most superficial efforts I’ve ever seen with respect to an attempt to address ethics.”
Years of dirty politics during former Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure has generated a laissez faire attitude toward even astonishing scandals. His Texas Enterprise Fund doled out $222 million to entities that did not submit formal applications or were not required to create jobs, according to the state auditor.
Under Perry’s administration, the state had to fire the firm it contracted for $899 million to use call centers to determine eligibility for benefits such as Medicaid, according to media reports. The firm failed to generate the savings it promised or address mounting backlogs.
Twenty-one percent of Perry’s campaign donations came from people who became his appointees. Parks and Wildlife commissioners gave Perry an average $118,477 each. Texas A&M regents, one of Perry’s largest sources of cash, averaged $113,127. That oughta be a crime.
Campaign dark money — contributed by organizations that are not required to disclose the identity of the people or corporations that provide the funds — has continued to proliferate. Dark money contributions rose to more than $2 million in Texas’ 2014 election cycle.
When corruption is this big, it takes a big bill to confront it.
SB 19 currently makes limited headway toward clarifying public officials’ financial interests, which would help expose conflicts of interest when they create public policy. The bill also requires that their financial statements be posted electronically in an accessible, searchable format, so people can see them without driving to Austin.
It requires public officials to identify all sources of income, earned and unearned, and disclose compensation for legal referrals. All of that is good.
But when the bill emerges from the House, it needs to do much more.
For example, it should prohibit legislators from doing any work for state agencies for two years after they leave office. Similarly, it should prohibit public servants involved in awarding contracts to companies from working for those businesses for two years.
To illuminate dark money, the bill should require identification of all sources of funds used for election campaigns. This principle should apply to direct expenditures by for-profit and nonprofit organizations designed to influence elections.
We don’t often have a chance for real reform. Now is one of those moments.
Tom “Smitty” Smith is director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. Carol Birch, volunteer legislative counsel for Public Citizen, is a former administrative law judge.