In a recent letter, six Republican nominees for the Texas Senate put the members of the Texas Ethics Commission on notice – stating that taking action on a proposed rule-change before the commission would be an abuse of authority and an infringement on responsibilities constitutionally entrusted to the Legislature.
The letter was sent in response to rules proposed by the Texas Ethics Commission that mimic Senate Bill 346 – a bill that would force non-profit advocacy groups to reveal the privacy of their donors – setting those donors up to be intimidated. (The full list of signees and text of the letter can found at the bottom of the page.)
The bill – authored by liberal Republican Senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo — generated significant controversy, having initially passed through the Senate before Senator Dan Patrick passed a resolution calling for the bill to be recalled in order to address the issues regarding its constitutionality.
Under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus, the House refused to honor the resolution, instead running the bill quickly through the House State Affairs Committee (chaired by State Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana), and later brought to the floor by the sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Charlie Geren of Ft. Worth.
Rep. Geren refused to support any amendments to the bill on the floor of the House while members deliberated in order to avoid the necessity of sending the bill to a conference committee with the Senate to iron out discrepancies, knowing conservative members of the Senate sought to kill the bill.
Many moderate and liberal Republicans joined with the entire Democratic voting bloc in the House to pass the bill over the objections of conservative members, sending the bill to the desk of Governor Rick Perry.
Gov. Perry ultimately vetoed the legislation, writing in the official decree:
“Freedom of association and freedom of speech are two of our most important rights enshrined in the Constitution. My fear is that Senate Bill 346 would have a chilling effect on both of those rights in our democratic political process. While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws, no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means. At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation.”
In August of this year, news broke that the Texas Ethics Commission would seek to supersede the decision of the Governor and the legislative process by proposing new rules crafted to emulate SB 346. The commission has officially published and proposed the rules, but has yet to approve them.
In the letter, the nominees make clear their position that, without the authority that would have been granted by SB 346, TEC commissioners do not have the authority to enact the rules that they have proposed. While there are constitutional concerns about the proposal in general, the incoming members argue in their letter that any debate over the subject matter of the legislation needs to take place in the House and Senate chambers:
“No doubt, next session, the Legislature will again debate the definition of a political committee and their reporting requirements. Whether it is in Committee, or on the floor of the House or Senate, we can expect this debate to be detailed and deliberative. Most importantly, this debate is the Legislature’s duty and our task alone.”
Assuredly, the eyes of the Texas Senate will be watching the TEC’s next move like a hawk. Will TEC commissioners be brazen enough to follow-through on their threat to abuse their authority, despite warnings from future members of Legislature not to do so?
Whatever they decide, the first amendment rights of all Texans are at stake.
October 4, 2014
Texas Ethics Commission
ATTN: Chairman Jim Clancy P.O. Box 12070
Austin, TX 78711-2070
Texas Ethics Commission Chairman:
As we look forward to the 84th Legislative Session, legislators will be faced with a myriad of important issues to tackle. Education, transportation, immigration and many other subjects all loom large. While finding common ground and passing common sense legislation might be difficult, it is our duty as elected representatives to do so in order to protect the life, liberty and property of the people of Texas.
Last session, the legislative process played itself out over Senate Bill 346, including the rare act of the Texas Senate attempting to recall from the House a piece of legislation that the Senate had previously passed. Ultimately, the House ignored the wishes of the Senate and passed the bill. Governor Perry vetoed the bill and issued a stinging rebuke regarding the intent of the bill.
No doubt, next session, the Legislature will again debate the definition of a political committee and their reporting requirements. Whether it is in Committee, or on the floor of the House or Senate, we can expect this debate to be detailed and deliberative. Most importantly, this debate is the Legislature’s duty and our task alone.
In his veto, the Governor described the “chilling effect” the passage of Senate Bill 346 would have on free speech in the State of Texas. We agree with the Governor and intend to promote our view in all debates on the subject next session.
Freedom of speech is perhaps the most essential freedom in our Republic and should be protected from intimidation by any government or individual seeking to abuse power. This truth should weigh heavily in the minds of every Texan, as more is revealed about the federal government’s repeated attempts to stifle dissenting political voices – even through the IRS. Texas must not become Washington DC.
It is strongly suggested the Texas Ethics Commission will attempt to supersede both the role of the Legislature and the Governor’s clear veto by enforcing some or all of the tenets of Senate Bill 346 through the TEC’s rule-making authority. We the undersigned strongly discourage the TEC from any attempt to usurp the constitutional authority of the legislative and executive branches by overstepping your authority. Legislating from the TEC bench – seeking to go around the legislative process to enact a law that failed the legislative process — is not something we will support.
Bob Hall, Republican Nominee, SD 2
Paul Bettencourt, Republican Nominee, SD 7
Van Taylor, Republican Nominee, SD 8
Konni Burton, Republican Nominee, SD 10
Don Huffines, Republican Nominee, SD 16
Charles Perry, Republican Nominee, SD 28
Texas Ethics Commission Members
The Honorable Rick Perry
The Honorable David Dewhurst
The Honorable Joe Straus