File: Rep. Charles Geren is a key player in the legislative battle over ethics reform. Here, he was on hand for the 81st Legislature of the state of Texas on Tuesday January 13, 2009. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis) Ron T. Ennis Star-Telegram archives
File: Rep. Charles Geren is a key player in the legislative battle over ethics reform. Here, he was on hand for the 81st Legislature of the state of Texas on Tuesday January 13, 2009. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis) Ron T. Ennis Star-Telegram archives

State Politics

Once doomed ethics overhaul on a legislative fast track this week

By Dave Montgomery

Special to the Star-Telegram

February 06, 2017 03:56 PM

UPDATED February 06, 2017 09:02 PM

AUSTIN

Two years after the collapse of an attempted ethics overhaul championed by Gov. Greg Abbott, lawmakers are engaged in a fast-tracked do-over that could yield strikingly different results in the current 2017 legislative session.

The absence of a so-called “dark money” provision — a polarizing ingredient that turned ethics reform into a train wreck in 2015 — seems to be clearing a path for a new ethics package that has widespread support among lawmakers and reform advocates in the opening weeks of this year’s session.

Two Tarrant County lawmakers — Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake — are at the center of the ethics push. Geren, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, is House sponsor of a six-article ethics package that has already won committee approval in the Senate and appears destined to win full Senate approval, possibly as early as Tuesday.

There are no excuses not to get this done.

Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, says of ethics reform in the current legislative session

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“There are no excuses not to get this done,” said Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, the Senate sponsor, describing his initiative as a “generational culture-changing ethics reform package.”

Passage of the Ethics Reform and Anti-Corruption Act of 2017 would be the most comprehensive ethics overhaul since 1991. The measure includes features to curb conflicts-of-interests, broaden disclosure of lobbying activities and make elected officials more accountable to the public.

Abbott, who made ethics reform one of his top priorities at the outset of the 2015 session, put this year’s measure on a fast track by tagging it as an emergency item during his State of the State address last week.

Geren and Taylor, whom Abbott praised in the speech for their work to “avoid the pitfalls” of the 2015 effort, are applying a two-fold strategy: broad-based legislation encompassing the entire package — Taylor’s SB14 and Geren’s identical HB1283 — as well as six separate back-up bills that duplicate each of the six articles in the overall package.

Taylor said the single-shot bills effectively serve as a safety-valve because of the “legislative vulnerability of an omnibus ethics reform bill,” providing lawmakers “multiple opportunities for passage and less opportunities for failure.” The stand-alone measures are House and Senate Bills 500 through 505.

Capriglione, a third-term House member who has fashioned a reputation as a leading advocate for ethics and government transparency, is author of bills that duplicate two articles in the ethics package. One, HB501, requires elected officials to disclose government contracts and the other, HB503, prevents lobbyists from simultaneously serving in elective office. Geren is sponsoring the other single-shot bills in the House as well as HB1283.

Bipartisan effort

Capriglione has also joined State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, in another high-profile ethics-related effort to reverse the impact of two Texas Supreme Court decisions that have had the effect of curtailing public access to government records held by private entities. The rulings stemmed from cases involving the Greater Houston Partnership and Boeing aerospace company in San Antonio.

While early prospects for passage appear strong, lawmakers who have been stung by past disappointments on ethics reform aren’t betting the ranch on the outcome. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Geren, adding that he plans to begin sounding out fellow House members this week to “see what the pulse of the body is.”

It’s a difficult slog to get any of this stuff done. I’m optimistic, but I guess cautiously optimistic is a better term. You're messing with the status quo.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

“It’s a difficult slog to get any of this stuff done,” said Capriglione. “I’m optimistic, but I guess cautiously optimistic is a better term. You're messing with the status quo…and by providing this oversight, especially when it comes to money, taxpayers’ money, then obviously things get disturbed and people get disturbed…There are obstacles that will be hiding in the dark corners.”

Ethics Reform Round Two largely recycles and updates individual ethics measures that had widespread — and in some cases unanimous — support among lawmakers in 2015 before they became part of an omnibus package that unraveled during the closing days of that session.

The stalemate centered on a House-passed version that would have ended a practice under which politically active non-profits are not required to disclose donors. Critics contended the anonymous donations allow millions of dollars in “dark money” to flow into the political process with little accountability. But those on the other side of the debate — including Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and much of the Senate membership — countered that disclosing the donors would have been an unconstitutional breach of free speech.

With both chambers refusing to budge during final negotiations, the omnibus bill flamed out at the end of the session, helping wreck Abbott’s pledge to dedicate the 2015 session to ethics reform.

Although dark money could easily reappear in a separate bill later this session, it has been purposefully left out of the revised 2017 ethics package to heighten the bill’s chances of clearing the Legislature and being passed into law with Abbott’s signature.

“It’s very early in the session to say, but it looks like it could be on its way to the governor’s desk,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, one of a group of ethics watchdog organizations that have given their blessing to the ethics package while at the same time calling for additional reforms.

SB14 cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday, becoming the first substantial bill in either chamber to win committee approval and advance toward a floor vote. The exact timetable for Senate action had not been determined by late last week, but staffers said the 19-page bill would be eligible for consideration as early as Tuesday.

Bill breakdown

If enacted, the measure would take effect Jan. 8, 2019. Here’s a closer look at each of the provisions.

Article One, or House and Senate Bills 500, calls for corrupt elected officials convicted of a felony to be removed from office and stripped of their taxpayer-funded pensions.

Article Two, duplicated by Capriglione’s HB501, would require elected officials and candidates to disclose contracts of goods and services with government entities if the aggregate amount exceeds $10,000 per year. It also requires the reporting of legal referral fees and bond counsel services.

Article Three attacks a loophole that has thwarted the disclosure of lawmakers and officials in the executive branch who are wined and dined by lobbyists. Presently, lobbyists aren’t required to identify the lawmakers or officials unless the expenditure exceeds $114, an amount equaling 60 percent of a legislator’s $190 per-diem reimbursement. Under the ethics measure, and companion bills HB502 and SB502, the threshold would be cut to 30 percent, or $57.

Article Three would also eliminate a practice under which lobbyists can split the bill to avoid the threshold, along with the need to identify the beneficiary.

In outlining Article Four, also contained in Capriglione’s HB503, Taylor said the ban on registered lobbyists serving simultaneously as elected officials is designed to prevent “the obvious conflict of interest” between those who “craft public policy” — legislators — and those “paid to influence public policy” — lobbyists. The article would not prevent former lobbyists who are no longer registered from running for and serving in office.

Article Five, HB504 and SB504, calls for a “cooling off” period that would require outgoing lawmakers to sit out a legislative session before they can become lobbyists. And Article Six, HB505 and SB505, prohibits former elected officials from using their campaign accounts for lobbying purposes for two years following their retirement.

Watchdog groups have embraced the measures but are urging lawmakers to use the ethics bandwagon to make further changes, including significantly broadening the disclosure requirements on personal financial statements that lawmakers and other public officials are required to file each year.

We’re never satisfied — and shouldn’t be.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice

They also say the disclosure reports, which now are submitted on paper with the Texas Ethics Commission, should be posted online to enable citizens to easily scrutinize the financial activities of public officials for potential conflicts of interests. And McDonald says lawmakers should also resurrect the dark money issue and eliminate the state’s current “outrageous” system of unlimited campaign contributions.

“There are some major things that aren’t in the bill this year, but there are six or eight very good provisions in it that we’ve been working on for years,” McDonald said. While McDonald said he is “very pleased” with what’s on the table now, he added: “We’re never satisfied — and shouldn’t be.”

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rmallison@star-telegram.com