Political & Election Law: Texas Lt. Governor Reserves Priority Bill Number for “Ethics Reform” – No Details Yet

Monday, December 5, 2016

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has announced that the Senate’s legislative priorities will include “ethics reform.” Signaling the relative importance of the issue, Patrick reserved Senate Bill 14 for ethics reform, with an aim to “strengthen Texas ethics laws, and ensure government officials and employees are held to high standards that inspire the public’s confidence in a transparent and ethically principled government.” (Hint: In Texas, a lower bill number signifies more significant legislation.)

To date, no Senate sponsor has been formally designated and the bill itself has not been filed. For now, members of the regulated community are left to wonder what the bill might include once it is written and filed.

A starting point would likely be Senator Van Taylor’s ethics reform bill from 2015, Senate Bill 19. That bill, as introduced, required public officers to disclose contracts with government entities, prohibited public officers that are convicted of corruption offenses from receiving a public pension, prohibit lobbyists from being elected to any office, and restrict former legislators from lobbying. On the Senate floor, however, the bill was loaded up with a variety of amendments, including changes that would have required more detailed reporting of lobby expenditures, would have required elected officials to take a drug test at the time they assume office, would have disqualified a felon from service in the legislature, and would have allowed the Texas Ethics Commission to place politicians’ personal financial statements online.

Once Taylor’s bill passed the Senate, the House stripped it of its miscellany and rewrote the bill in an effort to illuminate so-called “dark money” – those unreported funds used by politically active corporations to influence elections. The competing versions of “reform” could not be reconciled by the two chambers, leaving the bill deader than last summer’s love.

Senate Bill 14 could also serve as a vehicle for reforming the Texas Ethics Commission itself. In October, the Commission chair and executive director were grilled by state senators who questioned the agency’s priorities and the attitudes of its commissioners. Don’t be surprised if the legislature tries to modify the enforcement authority of the Commission, which has been engaged with conservative groups over the “dark money” issue and the enforceability of the state’s lobby law.

The Gober Group will keep folks informed as the details of “ethics reform” come into focus.

Ross Fischer of the Gober Group is the former Chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission and an expert in the field of Texas campaign finance and lobby laws.