Missing from Abbott’s special session priorities: ethics reform

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott describes the items he wants addressed by a special legislative session during a press conference at the State Capitol on June 6, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In calling last Tuesday for a special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a long list of priorities he expects Texas legislators to address. Missing from the list: ethics reform.

Yes, the list is already unwieldy with 20 priorities. But what’s one more, especially if it addresses much-needed transparency and accountability measures holding lawmakers to high ethical standards?

Among the July special session list of priorities we find bills that failed during the regular session, including another shot at property tax reform and another to pass school choice for special needs children. Why not ethics reform?

“The Legislature made some progress on ethics during the regular session, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done before anyone can truly be proud of the results,” Sen. Kirk Watson,  told me.  “Since we’re going to have a special session, we could make it really count by focusing on ethics legislation. If we’re spending time on local permitting issues, we can certainly squeeze in this important state issue.”

I agree.

Ethics reform was among four emergency priorities Abbott laid out for lawmakers at the start of the regular session. And, while the session began promisingly with a six-point ethics reform package, it ended on a flat note: only half the package made its way to Abbott’s desk.

It’s not the first time Abbott fails to get an ethics reform package passed. In 2015, his request went pretty much ignored.

The bills that passed this time around:

  • Senate Bill 500, which strips pensions from officials convicted on felony corruption charges and makes it easier to remove them from office.
  • House Bill 501, which strengthens reporting requirements for state politicians who make money from contracts with local governments through their private businesses.
  • HB 505, which prohibits lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from using their campaign coffers.

The other half of that ethics reform package ended up in the legislative trash bin. Had they passed, those bills would have created a two-year ban on retiring lawmakers becoming lobbyists, prohibited local elected officials from becoming state-level lobbyists, and made it more difficult for lobbyists to skirt disclosing the elected officials they wine and dine.

The bills that are now law are a solid step toward real transparency, yet they are small apples when compared to other hard-hitting accountability and transparency bills — some of which weren’t part of Abbott’s ethics package — that didn’t get much traction. One was a measure prohibiting the governor from appointing his big-dollar campaign donors to state agency boards. That’s something Abbott is familiar with; he’s done it 71 times since taking office, according to the Texas Tribune.

Another bill that could have moved the needle on transparency: a measure calling for the disclosure of dark money, a campaign financing loophole used to hide the source of political donations. With a bill on the latter alone, legislators would have taken huge ethic reform strides, not baby steps.

It’s not uncommon for me to meet someone who has little to no trust in our state elected officials. It is difficult to argue that they should when the absence of disclosure laws keep voters in the dark. Why put off significant ethics reform until the next regular legislative session to get the job done right? Why not take care of it next month?