April 16, 2003
Public Citizen Praises House Committee Passage of Major Campaign, Ethics Reforms
AUSTIN – Public Citizen hailed today’s House committee passage of campaign finance and ethics legislation as a major step toward reducing conflicts of interest and curbing the influence of money in the state Legislature and local governments.
“This bill eliminates several chronic ethics loopholes and gives the Ethics Commission some teeth,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “It’s a big step forward, and we call on the House to take the next step and pass these key reforms.”
The blue-ribbon House Ethics Committee approved CSHB 1606 early Wednesday morning. The bill combines HB 795, the sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission authored by Rep. Burt Solomons, and HB 1606, authored by Rep. Steve Wolens.
“This is major piece of reform legislation,” Smith said. “It reforms statutes the Ethics Commission, the House speaker’s race, standards of conduct for state officials, lobbyist activity and personal financial disclosure for municipal officials.”
The bill addresses:
- The Texas Ethics Commission. The legislation adds bite to what has been a toothless watchdog. It strengthens and streamlines investigations into possible violations of elections and ethics laws; strips the requirement that at least six members vote to initiate an investigation; clarifies laws that keep the staff from conducting meaningful investigations; requires the commission to perform random facial audits of campaign finance reports; and improves the personal financial disclosure forms that candidates and officeholders must file.
- Campaign finances. The bill extends the legislative-session fundraising ban through the period allowed for a gubernatorial veto; and ends the computer use exemption, which allows campaigns that raise more than $50,000 to claim that they do not use computers to keep track of their finances and thus avoid filing electronic campaign finance reports. This “Luddite loophole” has allowed dozens of campaigns that raised more than $100,000 each election to keep their reports off the Internet and out of the public eye. The bill also requires candidates for county chairs of political parties in counties with more than 400,000 people to file campaign finance reports with the Ethics Commission and requires district judges and district attorneys to file electronic campaign finance reports.
- Municipal government ethics. In response to ethics scandals that have plagued local government in recent months, the bill requires personal financial disclosures by municipal officials, which will better reveal conflicts of interest before they occur.
- Speaker’s race. The bill requires an official declaration of candidacy and limits fundraising to the speaker’s race-specific funds raised during the period of candidacy.
- Lobbyist activities. Lobbyists, under the bill, must file their activity reports in easily viewed electronic form and must pay an increased registration fee.
- Financial disclosures. These changes to ethical standards and personal financial disclosures represent some of the most needed reforms. The bill improves the personal financial disclosures filed by state officials to include mutual funds, blind trusts and the addresses of real property. It also requires disclosure of partnerships and other businesses relationships – key to discovering conflicts of interest.
- Conflicts of interest. One of the central reforms in this bill is the strengthening of the conflict-of-interest provision for legislators by restricting them from sponsoring or voting on bills affecting their personal financial interests. It also provides, for the first time, a penalty for violating the Standard of Conduct for state officials in the form of discipline of legislators by their respective house and removal of non-elected officials from office. It also prohibits sponsoring or voting on a matter on which a family member is lobbying.
- Lawyer-legislators. The bill makes significant inroads toward ending the oft-abused legislative continuance that allowed just-hired lawyer-legislators to obtain trial delays for clients. It also bans the practice of legislators lobbying state agencies for pay.
“This bill is the biggest step we’ve seen in over a decade toward cleaning up the Capitol,” Smith said.
State representatives on the Ethics Committee are Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Ruben Hope, R-Conroe; Dawnna Dukes, Vice Chair, D-Austin; Carl Isett, R-Lubbock; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; Mary Denny, R-Houston; and Steve Wolens, Chair, D-Dallas.