May 24, 2017

Killing Texas Ethics Legislation without Leaving Fingerprints

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, leads a discussion on House Bill 501, an ethics bill, on May 3, 2017. The bill passed, 147-0. / Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

It’s hard to get tougher ethics laws for politicians and officeholders through the Texas Legislature. It can be even harder to figure out exactly who killed them. 

By Ross Ramsey / 05.24.2017

When lawmakers really want to make a mark, they vote. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if they win — they just want demonstrate their position on a particular issue.

When lawmakers really don’t want to make their mark, they don’t vote.

Think about that as we add three high-profile bills on officeholder ethics to the list of this year’s unsolved legislative murders.

Senate Bill 502 was last seen leaving the House’s General Investigating & Ethics Committee on its way to the mysterious House Calendars Committee. It checked out of the first committee and never checked into the second, disappearing like a boat in the Bermuda Triangle. That’s a terrific relief to all of the state legislators who might otherwise have been forced to reveal who they were eating with during the session, and how much it cost. Lobbyists have to report the money they spend on officeholders, and when that figure goes over a certain amount, they also have to report the names of the people being wined and dined. SB 502 would arguably have forced more disclosure. Now it won’t.

Two more of those boats — Senate Bill 504 and its twin, House Bill 504— would have prevented lawmakers from quitting and coming back as lobbyists until they had sat out at least one two-year legislative cycle. The death of that revolving door bill is a bonus for anyone hoping to leave the elected class to become a rich and good-looking lobbyist, fending for special interests in the People’s Capitol. A related piece of legislation, House Bill 505, would prevent those revolvers from using money in their political accounts to spark their lobby business. Current law lets them make political contributions from their own leftover campaign funds — a nice bank of favors for a new lobbyist to tap. That one is still alive, having passed the Senate on Monday.

Many bills never make it out of the Calendars Committee, which merits the “mysterious” description because its workings are indecipherable — even in open meetings — to people who aren’t on the committee. It sets the House’s agenda for taking up bills; things that are never placed on a House daily agenda are said to “die in Calendars.” A quiet death, with no clear fingerprints from the perpetrators — almost a perfect killing. Still, there are members of the committee to blame. On the other hand, when legislation dies in the halls, somewhere between one committee and another, who’s to blame?

Ethics legislation is difficult to oppose without looking like a scoundrel. Voting against it can be even worse, depending on a particular legislator’s voters and their level of concern over corruption. Never having to vote — or even decide whether a vote will be taken — provides a perfect alibi.

The House isn’t the only killing field for ethics bills. In fact, it produced a whopper — House Bill 3305 — that met its demise in the Texas Senate. The last entry in the parliamentary logbooks, as of midweek, was that the bill had been “received from the House.” It’s sitting in a stack of unopened mail somewhere.

The legislation would have blocked the appointment of anyone who contributes $2,500 or more to the governor doing the appointing. The Republican sponsor, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, called it a “pay for play” reform and said — before collecting the votes of a comfortable majority in the House — that it would end the understandable impression left on voters when the biggest givers to a governor get the best appointments a governor can give. To give you an idea of the reach of that idea, at least 71 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointees gave the governor more than $2,500; together they gave at least $8.6 million, or an average of more than $120,000 each.

That death-by-Senate removes a potential heap of embarrassment that would have been facing this governor in particular, a prodigious fundraiser who is also the loudest proponent of strong ethics laws in Texas.

All of those bills would fit under the umbrella of Abbott’s call on lawmakers — his second in as many sessions — to treat ethics reform as an “emergency” issue. He is poised to close the 85th Legislature’s regular session with wins on other priorities, but ethics reform is a mixed bag at best.

It’s hard to get the players in an entrenched industry to self-regulate — especially if the business in question is politics.