The Texas Ethics Commission is poised to give Texas lawmakers a raise they never even asked for. To add insult to injury, the proposal would also further allow lobbyists and special interests to wine and dine legislators without reporting the expenses.
While the Texas Constitution leaves voters to decide whether legislators’ salaries should be increased, their per diem is set directly by the Texas Ethics Commission without voter input or approval.
Intended as a daily stipend, the per diem exists as an addition to legislators’ $7,200 per year salary. It compensates lawmakers for the cost of living in Austin during the 140-day session and when legislators visit the capital city during the interim. For several years the rate has been set at $150 per day, but commissioners are seeking to adopt a higher rate at their February meeting.
The TEC’s proposal would increase the number to $190, a $40 per day increase that amounts to a $5,600 pay raise for legislators over the course of the session. To legislators’ credit and the commissioners’ chagrin, lawmakers haven’t publicly asked for anything extra.
At a TEC hearing in October, then-Vice-Chairman Paul Hobby said, “There has not been a single request from a legislator or legislative leadership that the per diem be increased.”
Hobby voiced opposition to the increase proposal, even remarking how unprecedented it was. “To force feed state money to people who haven’t asked for it is something I haven’t seen before,” Hobby said, before going on to describe then-Chairman Jim Clancy as “Santa Claus.”
One commissioner joined Hobby, making the point that pay increases should be left to members to propose in the form of a constitutional amendment; leading Commissioner Delco—a former legislator—to object to the idea, remarking “that’s political suicide.”
“That’s why I think it’s here. That’s why I think we have the power… because of that very problem.” said then-Chairman Jim Clancy.
Such a statement haughtily presumes the superiority of a panel of unelected bureaucrats and smacks of contempt and disdain for the voters of Texas. It reveals a dangerous arrogance: that their assumed role is to shield legislators from those very same voters.
Why is the Ethics Commission working so hard to give legislators money they haven’t asked for? The answer may lie in a hot mic comment made by Democratic Party appointee, and now-Chairman Paul Hobby. As the commissioners voted to give the pay increase to legislators, Hobby remarked skeptically, “Maybe bribery works!”
The commission has run-up significant legal bills due to its efforts to suppress speech. In order to continue those efforts, the commissioners appear to be betting that an increase in the per diem will result in an increase in their appropriation from the legislature. Rather than being a white hat in the discussion, Hobby appeared skeptical that the plan would work.
The proposal isn’t just a naked pay-off of taxpayer dollars to legislators by the cash-strapped TEC. It also increases the amount that lobbyists can spend on gifts to legislators – food, drinks, and entertainment – each day without reporting the name of the legislator or legislative staff who is on the receiving end.
Due to an insidious linkage in state law between the per diem and the lobbyist allowance – the limit on unreported gifts is three-fifths of the amount of the per diem – the proposal would increase the amount of unreported food, beverage, and entertainment that legislators can take from any single lobbyist by $24 per day. It begs the question, why are any significant lobbyist expenditures non-disclosed?
Under the proposed new rate, a lobbyist could spend up to $114 per day wining and dining a legislator and his constituents would have no means of finding out. To make matters more troubling, the limit is only per lobbyist per legislator. If more than one lawmaker or lobbyist is present, the cost can be split, allowing the purchase of pricier gifts and entertainment. As one TEC Commissioner remarked, “If you get enough people in the same room, you can have quite a party.”
One member of the House, State Rep. Charlie Geren has filed legislation that would do a lot to fix the problem. His bill, HB 972, would repeal the linkage in the per diem and tighten the cap on the lobbyist limit. If passed into law, Geren’s measure would be a definite positive reform for the legislature.
The ability of lobbyists to cover the price of a meal makes sense. A person wishing to speak with a representative or senator should be able to do so over coffee, lunch, or perhaps even a beer. However, the current limit certainly leaves plenty of opportunity for extravagance and abuse.
According to the Texas Tribune: “A lawmaker or staffer who really wanted to take advantage of the rules (and the favors of lobbyists) could ride pretty high for the 20 weeks of the legislative session.”
Both issues speak of a need for reform in the compensation mechanics of members of the Texas Legislature. It’s not unreasonable to compensate lawmakers for the cost of being in Austin, and it’s not unreasonable that lobbyists should be allowed to spend some money on them in exchange for their willingness to listen. It is however, unacceptable to play a game of quid pro quo with taxpayer money while keeping Texans out of the decision making process.