Feb. 13, 2003
Government Reform Groups Call on the Legislature to Clean up the Capitol
Texas legislators need to pass long-overdue ethics reforms for the state government, citizen reform groups said today. Five groups outlined their legislative agenda to clean up the Capitol as the Legislature begins to consider bills filed by multiple legislators addressing the major ethics problems in state government.
“There’s an old saying in Texas that you have to dance with them that brought you,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “For too long big contributors and business buddies have held the dance floor while average Texans are left broken-hearted. We have a series of reforms to ensure the interests of the public are not drowned out by big money and sweetheart deals. Everyone deserves the opportunity to take a whirl.”
The groups challenged the legislature to take up the issues of campaign finance reform, ethics rules for state officials and retooling of the ailing Texas Ethics Commission. This comes 12 years after initial steps were taken to solve these problems.
“After 12 years, we are increasingly aware that the Ethics Commission has not lived up to its promise,” said Carolie Mullan, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. She said that with the Sunset changes for the commission in the works, it is the time for needed reforms beyond the modest commission recommendations. It is especially important when money and politics play such a controversial role in our electoral process.
These reforms include cutting bureaucracy, removing restrictions that discourage the staff from investigating complaints for fear of arbitrary criminal penalties, opening up the commission’s secret proceedings, and removing politically appointed commissioners from day-to-day operations.
“These reforms will go a long way to bring fairness and efficiency to the ethics commission,” Mullen said.
Campaign contributions for state officials in Texas lack any substantial regulation or accountability. The groups are demanding the legislature impose limits on the ability of big money to influence elections and for candidates to identify those who are funding their candidacy.
“In Texas, wealthy individuals can and do donate $100,000 to would-be lawmakers repeatedly throughout the course of the campaign season,” said Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause Texas. “It is high time Texas lawmakers enact limits and remove the ‘For Sale’ sign from the Capitol. The $1,000 per campaign limit proposed by Speaker Craddick in 1991 is a good place to start.”
“We are also calling for the loophole in the ‘payback limit’ law passed in 1991 to be plugged. Office seekers’ use of political funds to repay campaign loans made by a bank to those that use ‘personal wealth’ as collateral must be reined in. Following a successful campaign, the victors know there will be no shortage of help in paying off these debts,” Woodford added.
Campaigns for People Director Fred Lewis added, “The legislature must also pass the most fundamental reform: full and timely disclosure of money in politics, because what the voters don’t know about campaign money can hurt them, in higher insurance premiums, more expensive utility bills, less protection from telemarketers and more polluted air and water.”
More than one-third of legislative candidates refused to file their contributions on government Web sites that citizens can easily access, many claiming that neither they nor anyone with their campaign could use a computer, although some of their campaigns had Web sites or had law school graduates on their staffs.
Candidates also need to disclose the employer and occupation of their contributors. This information is critical to seeing if a candidate’s contributors come primarily from certain companies or industries. The federal government has required reporting since 1978, 32 other states require it, and the legislature began requiring it for judicial candidates in 1995.
“It’s time to extend the same requirements that legislators put on judicial candidates to themselves,” Lewis said.
The groups also identified closing the “issue ad” loophole as essential to keeping Texas campaigns from regressing further. They estimate that in the next election millions will be spend in corporate, union and non-profit treasury funds without voters knowing the source behind last-minute mailers and broadcast ads. That includes, for example, the four million direct mailings the Texas Association of Business (TAB) sent out just before the 2001 elections. The TAB is now under investigation by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earl.
The groups also targeted the conflicts of interest in the state government, which are news media statewide are continually reporting.
“The Capitol is plagued with sweetheart deals and favors to families and business buddies. Our conflict of interest laws are too weak, and it’s time to clean up the Capitol,” said Public Citizen’s Smith. “We have five key reforms that are needed to make sure public service is in the public, not private, interest.”
The reforms include holding state officials to a similar conflict standard that the legislature has held local officials to, which establishes a clear threshold of $2,500 of an official’s income or $25,000 of assets, at which point that official becomes ineligible to vote on a matter that would increase the value of that income or asset. The current standard applies only to specific business transactions of assets with a complex, narrow definition that is virtually unenforceable.
Necessary to determine those conflicts are the full disclosure of state officials’ income and assets. Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, and Governor Rick Perry have all voiced support for the disclosure of income tax returns. Once the conflicts have been identified, the groups call for clear procedures to prevent state officials from voting on conflicting issues and for increased power for the Texas Attorney General to remove those officials that disregard the law.
The groups also identified the need to end the “revolving door” practices in the legislature and state agencies. Texas has been plagued by scandals in which industry honchos have been appointed to regulate the very industries in which they are employed, in many cases returning to their old jobs as soon as they have finished their “public service.” Also, under current law, legislators and state officials may return to lobby their old colleagues the minute they hand over their keys—indeed, legislators are even allowed to lobby for clients before the state agencies whose budgets they control.
“The creation of a blue-ribbon committee on ethics by House Speaker Tom Craddick is an opportunity that the legislature must not squander,” Smith said. “The Speaker has shown the way with the ambitious ethics bill he proposed in 1991. Those reforms were needed then and are even more necessary now.”