Public Citizen Calls on Senate to Pass a Stronger Ethics Bill

May 27, 2003

Public Citizen Calls on Senate to Pass a Stronger Ethics Bill

Bill on the Floor on Wednesday

 

AUSTIN – Public Citizen today called on the Texas Senate to pass a stronger campaign and ethics reform bill than the House did last month. HB 1606, withstanding a few improvements, has now been watered down twice: before it hit the floor in the House and now in the Senate Government Organization Committee.

“The Senate needs to stop Texas two-stepping on conflicts of interest – every time an ethics bill is debated it’s weakened,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “This is a good first step, and we desperately need campaign and ethics reform, but the Senate should strengthen this modest bill.”

One of the major provisions stripped from the House bill were rules about when legislators could not vote because of a conflict of interest. The Legislature has for the past decade been operating under a conflict-of-interest law so weak and narrow that not a single legislator has been punished for voting on a conflict of interest, despite rampant conflicts in the Capitol.

“We consistently see three conflicts of interest in the Legislature—bills that would enrich members, their family and their employer,” said Smith.

For example, in this session alone:

  • Fourteen members of the House who are lawyers voted against an amendment that would have limited their income by limiting their use of controversial legislative continuances, which allow a legislator to get a six-month delay in a trial for their clients during the legislative session.
  • A legislator’s daughter was ineligible by law from taking the state bar exam because she went to an unaccredited law school, so he sponsored an amendment to kill that law.
  • A legislator employed by a law firm that lobbies the Legislature led the charge against an amendment that would have required legislators like him to disclose when their co-workers are paid to lobby them for their vote.

Lawmakers stripped from the Senate bill provisions that gave cities and counties tools to combat ethics scandals and regulate campaigns. Large counties were to have been given, for the first time, the ability to enact campaign finance laws stronger than the state’s. In response to the ethics scandals plaguing large cities and counties, they were to be given a mandate to establish conflict-of-interest regulations revealing the connections between officials and the businesses to which they give contracts. With no state senator publicly campaigning against these local-control provisions, it is unclear why they were stripped.

Public Citizen has urged the Senate to reclaim its reformer role under the new leadership of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The Senate, under former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, was historically the place where most of the work on ethics and campaign reform bills was done. Last session, the Senate passed a tough campaign finance disclosure law but it died in conference.

“It’s time for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to show what kind of leader he can be,” Smith said. “We urge him to lead the way to reform and end the cover-up of conflicts in the Capitol.”

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