The Texas Senate, passing the first bill of the 2017 legislative session, unanimously approved an ethics reform package that watchdogs say will help curb conflicts of interest and shed more light on the private dealings of state elected officials.
The fast-tracked legislation, SB 14 by Sen. Van Taylor, now heads to the Texas House. Among other provisions, the bill would take pensions away from elected officials convicted on felony public corruption charges, make retiring lawmakers wait out one full legislative session before becoming lobbyists and require more disclosure of lobbyist wining and dining of state officials.
The hottest debate came over a proposed amendment by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, aimed at requiring lobbyists to disclose their entertainment spending on “widely attended events,” such as football tailgating parties, to which state officials are invited. Watson warned that a new loophole could open up without that new provision, in turn allowing lobbyists to stage large events they would then use to “influence” lawmakers.
That prompted a round of questions from senators, including an angry response from Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who said it was “offensive” to suggest that a lobbyist might somehow influence his official actions.
“My vote is not sale, and it’s not for sale for a meal or a tailgate event,” Taylor fumed.
Watson said he meant no offense but noted that influencing legislation is “the very nature of the professional lobbyist.”
Taylor answered that a lot of lobbyist-financed events are “purely relational” — just a "getting to know people" kind of thing — and he said lawmakers can benefit from the expertise of special interest lobbyists.
“I’ll just tell you I think the lobby plays a very important role in this process,” Taylor said. “We cannot possibly be experts in everything. There are good lobbyists and there are bad lobbyists.”
Amid the outcry Watson withdrew the amendment, saying later that it was clear he wouldn’t prevail and suggesting he might have a chance to resurrect it later.
The quick action in the Senate gives the ethics reform package a decent chance of passage this year. Two years ago ethics reform died in the waning days of the session, a fate that Taylor, the bill author, is anxious to avoid. Like two years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott has fast-tracked ethics reform by declaring it a legislative emergency.
"This is the people's bill," Taylor said when he introduced the legislation on the floor Tuesday. "We work for them, no matter our party or position."
In order to keep the bill on track, Taylor has steadfastly resisted changes that would either significantly strengthen or weaken the bill over fears it would torpedo the overall effort as it did in 2015. At one point during the debate Tuesday he said, “I don’t think we should put anything controversial on here.”
That includes any provision to close down the “dark money” loophole, which has been used by GOP and Democratic activists alike to cloak the source of their political donations.
Also not included: proposals that Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, has pushed to require elected officials to disclose all their sources of income — the kind of provision that would have allowed the public to see that Gov. Rick Perry was double-dipping his pension and salary before he had to reveal it on federal forms when he was running for president in 2011.
Rodríguez also pointed out during the debate that the the Texas Ethics Commission still isn't allowed to posting state officials' personal financial statements online.
“In the 21st century I’m not sure why this isn’t already in the law,” Rodriguez said. In a written statement released after the bill passed, Rodriguez applauded the reforms but said they didn’t go far enough.
“Transparency bills serve the public interest. Voters deserve as much information as possible about the elected officials they send to Austin to represent their interests,” Rodriguez said. “Disclosure laws strengthen the public bond by shedding light on any appearance of impropriety, and give voters greater confidence that elected officials keep sight of who they really work for — the public.”