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TX House Passes Rules Resolution, But Not Without Contentious Debate

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

The Texas House, with passage of HR 5, opened a window in its chamber today to "let the sunshine in" by approving rule changes that allow for more record votes in the House. While that rule change on record votes was generally well received, a proposed addition relative to the authority of the House Ethics Committee caused a bit of a stir. So did a proposed amendment, eventually withdrawn, that called for stripping of duties of the House Speaker or committee chairs if an indictment is returned or a criminal information is filed charging them with an offense punishable by imprisonment.

The committee change regarding the Ethics Committee was designed to outline the authority of the committee, said Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin), author of the House rules resolution, HR 5.

Rep. Paul Moreno (D-El Paso) told Keel he is "suspicious" of the committee description of the Ethics Committee in the rules change. Rumors circulated, particularly among Democrats, that the change in the rules were designed so that the committee could investigate Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat who recently returned grand jury indictments against a number of Republican fundraisers relative to contributions to Texas House races. House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas are still under investigation by Earle, and other indictments could follow.

Keel responded that the authority of the committee is "consistent with existing law in the Government Code" and gives a "clearer and more accurate notice of the committee's authority and responsibility" and also gives notice to the House members of the authority of the committee.

Moreno said that because of the "high partisanship" that exists in the legislature he sees the rule as a way of "finding a vehicle to harass District Attorney Earle."

Keel, who worked with Earle prior to Keel's having been elected to the Texas House, noted, "Ronnie Earle was my mentor, perhaps the biggest influence in my life besides my father." He said he remains close friends with Earle and would be the last person to have "any undercurrent of an agenda that would delete or diminish the authority of the Travis County District Attorney." In fact, he said, he discussed the rule change with Earle and said the district attorney "applauded" the proposed change. "In regard to the powers this committee enjoys," said Keel, "these powers already exist." He said that authority and power has just never been made clear to the members of the House.

Moreno questioned if the authority is already covered by statute, why give the committee members more authority. Keel responded that the rule change only adds to the name, it does not give the committee any more authority than has existed in Texas for years. He said some members have forgotten what authority the committee has, and the rule change gives a "clear description" of the committee's authority and responsibilities. He said there is "not a single change" in the authority of the committee in the proposed rule.

Moreno said the resolution would "open the door" to create an avenue for harassment.

"That door is already open," responded Keel, again noting the rule change simply changes the committee's name and establishes a "permanent" Ethics Committee.

Moreno later offered an amendment that he said he regretted having to offer because of its "vindictiveness" toward the House Speaker, which would require the Speaker or the chair of a committee to resign his duties pending any indictment.

Keel pointed out that the only way to remove legislators is by "act of law" not by rule. He said the proposed rule would allow use of an "act of accusation" to remove a member from office.

Moreno said he is "just trying to do what Congress has done," but Keel countered that the United States Congress, by rule, requires conviction of a crime for removal from office. He said what Moreno was describing is a Congressional caucus rule.

The amendment would not remove the affected member from office, only strip him or her of their duties, pointed out Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston).

Rep. Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock) said he served in the House when the Speaker, Speaker Pro Tem and others were under indictment. He said even then, there was tension, but it "did not interfere with the process." He said the proposed amendment has the potential to allow an "outside person" to represent the House when the members previously chose their leader.

Keel said the proposal would be unconstitutional as a rule change.

"I believe very, very strongly that any person who is in charge and has the ability to run the state of Texas should just turn over his or her responsibility pending the outcome of whatever matter is pending," said Moreno, adding that he had made his point and then withdrew his amendment.

An amendment by Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) would instruct the Legislative Council to put amendments on the state's Internet site in "real time." He said he is willing to provide enough time to "get the kinks out of the system," but said it "is important that the general public have the ability to view the amendments we're voting on."

"It's a little bit more difficult than what you're saying it would be," responded Rep. Peggy Hamric (R-Houston). She said one of the drawbacks is that sometimes amendments are withdrawn or not voted on, and suggested that the ones adopted after the bill passes would be better than to have amendments online that are never adopted. "The public is entitled to that information," said Gallego.

Hamric expressed concerns regarding directing someone else to do something when she is not sure how long it will take to complete the project. "I have no problem with doing it as soon as practical," said Gallego, "but I do think it needs to be real time and I do think the public needs to have access to it."

"We can make it happen if we want to make it happen," said Gallego. He proposed the amendments be available in the same way the House Journal is available to the public - but in real time.

Keel said that under the current floor amendment system, the public has access to the amendments once action is taken on them. Under the Gallego proposal, he said, a member might want to withdraw an amendment and it would already be on the Internet for the public to view.

The Gallego amendment failed.

Keel also laid out other proposed rules changes in HR 5, which he called a "product of a bipartisan working group that met in December and January" with results aimed at "enhancing (House) procedures and the public's confidence in those procedures." Keel said there was "extended and detailed discussion" among workgroup members on the issue that "increases accountability to the public."

Laying out changes regarding record votes in the House, Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi) said "primary considerations were to provide access to information for the public and to protect the public's right to know." She noted that the Texas Constitution provides that on request of three members of the House, a record vote can be requested. She said new rules allow any single member to request a record vote and "lowers the threshold" of what's in the current rules and the Constitution. She said that upon passage of a bill or joint resolution, without objection, the journal would show every member who voted "aye."

Luna said the proposed rule change "protects the public's right to know, increases legislative accountability" and goes to the heart of better providing timely information to the public.

"We think we've come up with a good balance in this resolution," she said, noting there are already 25 various types of record votes that are required in the House.