May 22, 2003
Lawmakers Should Strengthen, Pass the Ethics Bill
HB 1606 Before Legislative Committee on Friday; Only Five Days Left to Pass the Bill
AUSTIN — Public Citizen today called on state lawmakers to strengthen a pending ethics bill and pass it before a Wednesday deadline.
House Bill 1606, a landmark ethics and campaign reform bill, will be debated Friday in the Government Organization Committee in the Senate. The Senate has been tinkering with the bill for two weeks, but with the end of the session quickly approaching, the measure may be stuck in the legislative process when the session ends. Wednesday is the last day the Senate may pass a House bill.
Public Citizen established five tests at the beginning of the session for a meaningful ethics bill – tests the current version doesn’t meet:
- Fully disclosing campaign contributions;
- Giving the ineffective ethics watchdog, the Texas Ethics Commission, real teeth;
- Ending the abuses of legislative privileges – representing clients before state agencies and misusing legislative continuances;
- Shedding sunshine on the hidden financial interests of legislators; and
- Establishing true conflict-of-interest rules for legislators.
The bill that came out of the House Ethics Committee met most of these tests, but it was systematically watered down in backroom deals before being passed by the House and sent to the Senate. Now, rumors are circulating the Capitol that senators afraid of shedding light on the dark workings of power in the Capitol are seeking to water down the bill further.
Of specific concern to Public Citizen are the conflict-of-interest rules for legislators that were stripped out of the Ethics Committee version of the bill. The current rules define a conflict of interest so narrowly that abstaining from a vote because of a conflict has become a virtually extinct practice. The proposed rules that were stripped from the bill broadened the definition of a conflict.
For instance, current rules say a conflict occurs if a lawmaker casts a vote that would affect a specific business transaction in which a lawmaker has a controlling interest. The revised version expanded the definition of controlling interest to include more scenarios.
“There are four chronic conflicts in the Legislature, and all of them need to be prevented,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “They occur when legislators vote to enrich themselves, their families, their businesses and their clients.”
Rules covering personal financial disclosure by legislators, which haven’t been amended since 1973, are updated in HB 1606. However, they still fall far short of giving the public necessary information. For instance, they expand the kinds of assets that must be disclosed, but do not include crucial information regarding business deals with lobbyists, such as the name of the lobbyist or the size of the transaction.
The House defeated an amendment that would have required legislators to file a disclosure form when their employer is paid to lobby them and their colleagues on bills. Some senators are rumored to be pressing to remove the requirement in HB 1606 that legislators disclose when their immediate family is paid to lobby them and their colleagues on a bill, a clear conflict of interest.
“A few legislators continue to vote on bills that benefit themselves and their families because the bar for conflicts of interest has been set so low it’s in the dirt,” said Smith. “As long as legislators refuse to disclose when they have financial interests in bills and abstain from voting, the public will continue to question whether they are representing the interests of the people or those of their business buddies. How long will the Senate let the cover-up continue?”
The last-minute treatment given to HB 1606 is not an uncommon approach to ethics and campaign reform bills in the Legislature. In 1999 and 2001, the Legislature let bills die on the last day of the session, giving legislators who hated the bills political cover for killing government reform by hiding behind the chaos of the end of the session.
Smith called on Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to show the leadership required to pass a strong ethics bill.
“When Bob Bullock was lieutenant governor, the Senate was the leader on government reform,” Smith said. “This is the time for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to show bipartisan leadership and pass a stronger ethics bill than the House,” Smith said.