Although Texas ranks among the bottom of the barrel for ethics laws and Gov. Greg Abbott has claimed major ethics reform as a priority, substantive legislation hasn’t been pushed by the governor during the special session.
That has irked some lawmakers, including Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), chairwoman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, who joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers on that committee Wednesday in calling for more serious reform.
One loophole they hope to close is one that may benefit Abbott. While lawmakers cannot seek contributions from people that might receive a positive benefit from legislation during the regular session, no such prohibition exists during special sessions.
While Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have pledged not to raise funds during the special session this summer, Abbott has continued email solicitations.
One of the lawmakers who prodded Abbott at the press conference, Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), is pushing legislation to tamp down what he called a “pay for play” system in the governor’s office. Larson’s bill would make contributors who give $2,500 to the governor ineligible to be appointed to state boards and commissions.
He said over the years those donors who give heartily to governors and fattened the campaign coffers have tended to receive the best appointments.
“I think it’s imperative that if we control both the legislative and the executive branch of government that we should reform the most egregious ethics violations we’ve got in the state, and that’s where people have to pay large sums of money to get appointed to highly coveted seats,” Larson said.
Texas earned a D-minus grade from The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in its 2015 state integrity investigation, ranking it 39th of the 50 states. That included grades of F in the accountability categories for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
The Texas Monitor recently ran a series of stories examining some of the more egregious expenses by state lawmakers out of their campaign accounts in a state that doesn’t limit how much donors can give to legislators.
CPI swiped at the Lone Star State after the legislature only passed scant ethics reform after Abbott’s first State of the State address in 2015 calling for major changes.
“The paltry body of work on one of the governor’s top priorities enhanced the state’s reputation as a place where — at least in the eyes of watchdog groups — lip service on ethics trumps actual results,” David Montgomery wrote for CPI.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman blasted Wednesday’s press conference in a written statement published by the Texas Tribune.
“Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the Governor’s call,” Wittman wrote. “Their constituents deserve better.”
Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy group with an office in Austin, said that with two weeks to go in the special session it’s time for Abbott to press harder on the issue of ethics reform.
“During the regular session, the governor again proved himself to be all hat and no cattle when it comes to ethics reform,” said Public Citizen legislative counsel Carol Birch. “Since the legislature is back in the saddle at his request, he should go ahead and bring the whole herd.”