Special session winds to close, so do chances at ethics reform

Representative Sarah Davis
Representative Sarah Davis

As a governor spokesman said ethics reform is unlikely during the special session, more Texas government watchdogs implored Gov. Greg Abbott to focus on that issue as legislative days wind down in 2017.

After House Republicans Sarah Davis of West University Place and Lyle Larson of San Antonio held a press conference earlier this month urging the governor to add ethics reform to his special session agenda, governor’s office spokesman John Wittman accused the lawmakers of showboating.

That irked government watchdogs who support the ethics reform efforts of Davis and Larson.

“It is not ‘showboating’ to offer important legislation, representing real ethics reform, in the face of the Governor’s heavy-handed and misguided special session calls for control over local government tree trimming and bathroom ordinances,” Dave Jones, president of Clean Elections Texas Dave Jones said in a written comment. “If local tree-trimming rules justify the legislature’s attention in a special session, then real ethics reform certainly merits consideration.”

Abbott has placed on the agenda a bill that would require transgender people in Texas government buildings to use facilities for the gender listed on their official IDs.

Clean Elections Texas is part of a group that calls itself “Integrity Texas,” a liberal organization that includes Public Citizen, Texans for Public Justice, and Common Cause Texas.

That group supports such legislation as Davis’ HB 15, which would slow the “revolving door” in which lawmakers become lobbyists by requiring a “cooling off” period of one session. This aids the ethical conundrum in which some legislators find themselves by moving quickly from the legislature to lobbying their former colleagues in a new highly paid role with special-interest groups.

Davis is also pushing legislation that would prohibit direct political contributions to lawmakers and members of the executive branch during all legislative sessions. Such donations are now banned during regular sessions, but not special sessions.

HB 33, from Larson, would make contributors who give more than $2,500 to the governor ineligible to be appointed to state boards and commissions. He’s trying to curb a system commonplace in the governor’s office that awards big donors with plum appointments.

Larson has noted, to Abbott’s chagrin, it has happened often in the past few years — about 70 donors of $2,500 or more to Abbott’s campaign have received juicy appointments by the governor.

“The leadership of state agencies and commissions should be based on the merits and qualifications of the applicant — not the size of their contributions to the Governor,” said Carol Birch, legislative counsel for Public Citizen’s Texas office, in a written statement.

The House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, which Davis chairs, unanimously passed the ethics reforms of both Davis and Larson, sending those bills to the full House.

But Abbott must add that legislation to the agenda of the special session for the bills to have a chance to become law, and Wittman said Thursday “don’t hold your breath.”

In his first State of the State Address in 2015, Abbott said “the most important commodity that we have as elected officials is the bond that we share with our constituents. Transparency — and rising above the appearance of impropriety — will strengthen that bond. But rejection of ethics reform could weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said legislation addressing ethics issues should be considered a high priority during the special session.

“Despite declaring ethics reform an emergency item the past two sessions, Abbott has failed to deliver,” McDonald said. “Rather than ridicule legislators who want to tackle ethics reform, he should embrace their efforts. Trees and bathroom bills should move to the back of the line.”