Campaign and Ethics Reform Bill Passed by Texas House Is Good Step, But Falls Short

May 8, 2003

Campaign and Ethics Reform Bill Passed by Texas House Is Good Step, But Falls Short

 

AUSTIN — Public Citizen today praised the Texas House for passing the biggest campaign and ethics reform bill in years, but emphasized that lawmakers fell short of bringing Texas’ laws up to par with other states.

“Speaker Tom Craddick showed leadership at the beginning of the legislative session by appointing a committee to study ethics reforms and choosing a lawmaker as able as Steve Wolens to head it,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “However, we’ve got a long way to go before we finish cleaning up the Capitol.”

The bill contains the following reforms:

  1. It gives some teeth to the toothless watchdog of ethics in government, the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC), and streamlines its cumbersome enforcement process.
  2. It requires PACs to disclose the corporate and union treasury money that they are allowed to spend on administrative procedures.
  3. It requires disclosure of the balance on hand in legislators’ campaign accounts.
  4. It ends the “luddite loophole,” which allowed candidates who claimed that they didn’t use a computer to track their political contributions to avoid the electronic reporting that makes information on contributions easily available to the public. Some candidates have raised as much as $300,000 while exploiting the loophole and keeping their records under wraps.
  5. It allows large counties to set their own, stricter, campaign finance laws and requires county and municipal officials to disclose their personal finances.
  6. It reforms the speaker’s race, regulating the way candidates can raise and spend funds.
  7. It requires more disclosure from state officials and legislators as relates to their personal finances, relationships with lobbyists and legislative continuances.
  8. It bars the “rent-a-legislator” practice in which lawmakers represent clients for pay before state agencies — whose budgets they control.

The bill that was passed, however, was significantly weaker than previous versions introduced, and many needed reforms were stripped out.

“This bill does nothing to prevent legislators from voting on bills that specifically affect their income, their family and their employer’s business,” Smith said. “Once again, lawmakers have failed to adequately toughen the law. Instead, they are relying on the failed policy of disclosing potential conflicts.”

The need for these reforms was shown on Tuesday when Rep. Charlie Howard slipped an amendment into a bill on the Texas Bar Association that allowed his daughter, who had attended correspondence law school, to take the bar exam despite the constitutional prohibition against legislators voting on bills in which they have a “personal or private interest.”

Some of the clearest conflicts of interest occur when legislators must decide between the interests of their constituents and their clients. On Wednesday night, lawmakers defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Dunnam that would have required legislators to disclose when their law partners were lobbying for clients. The measure was tabled by Rep. Dan Branch, who works for a law firm that has a number of lobbyists who ply their trade in the Capitol. Branch failed to disclose that conflict. (Attached is the record vote on this conflict-of-interest disclosure amendment.)

“The Legislature seriously takes up campaign and ethics reform only once every decade, so it is very disappointing for the House to refuse to consider several commonsense amendments to the bill,” Smith said. ” We can only hope the Senate does a better job.”

A group of reformist legislators including Reps. Pete Gallego, Jim Dunnam, Elliott Naishtat, Arlene Wogelmouth, John Mabry, Mike Villareal, Patrick Rose, Jerry Madden, Yvonne Davis and Craig Eiland offered a series of strong amendments. Some were accepted, but the following were not:

  1. A requirement that groups that put out phony “issue ads” immediately before an election (such as the Texas Association of Business) and spend more than $100,000 on the ads must disclose their donors (offered by Gallego).
  2. A limit on an individual’s total political contributions in a Texas election cycle of $100,000 (offered by Dunnam).
  3. A limit on the “late-train” political contributions immediately after the election of $1,000 per contribution (offered by Gallego).
  4. A requirement that the TEC audit .5 percent of the candidate, lobbyist and PAC reports that are filed with them each year. The commission currently does not audit any (offered by Rose).
  5. A requirement that candidates disclose the employer and occupation of their political donors who contribute more than $250. The bill set that threshold at anything over $1,000, which covers only 4 percent of the contributors to the 2002 House elections (offered by Dunnam).
  6. A requirement that for legislators to get a civil trial continuance, they cannot simply be co-counsel; they must have been hired before Election Day or be the original counsel on the case (offered by Dunnam).

“We hope the Senate can and will do better, and that the tough ethics provisions will finally pass the Legislature,” Smith said.

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