As expected, the Texas Senate made headlines today by passing major ethics reform legislation. Just last week, Gov. Greg Abbott made ethics reform one of his emergency items for the legislature to pass this session.
“The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials,” said Abbott in his speech. “That trust is eroded if they perceive that elected officials are acting in anything other than the people’s best interests.”
Authored by State Sen. Van Taylor (R–Plano), the omnibus ethics bill, SB 14, includes provisions barring politicians convicted of a felony from holding office or drawing a pension, requiring lawmakers to disclose government contracts, bond counsel, and legal referral fees, enacting more effective disclosure of lobbyist wining and dining of legislators, and banning elected officials from being employed as lobbyists while in office and eliminating the “revolving door” by adding a one session cooling-off period before former lawmakers can become lobbyists.
“Historic ethics reform is usually the result of major scandal. Thankfully, that is not the reason we passed Senate Bill 14 today,” said Taylor upon the bill’s passage. “The ethics reform package that passed unanimously out of the Senate is unique in that it was born out of leadership. I want to thank Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and so many of my fellow colleagues for their leadership in making meaningful ethics reform a priority.
Abbott also applauded the passage of the legislation.
“The faith that people have in their democracy is linked to the trust they have in their elected officials. Representatives in Austin must be voting with their constituents’ interests in mind – not their own – and I am confident that this session will lead to increased accountability and meaningful reforms that are desperately needed in Texas,” said Abbott in a press release. “I want to thank Senator Van Taylor who is once again leading the charge in shepherding this bill through the Senate, and I look forward to its passage in the House.”
Though the measure passed the Texas Senate unanimously with praise from Republicans and Democrats, it faces a tougher path in the Texas House.
Last session, major ethics legislation followed a similar track. Gov. Abbott made the issue an emergency item in his state of the state address, Taylor took the lead on the issue in the Texas Senate, and the measure passed the state’s upper chamber unanimously.
So why didn’t it pass last session?
The reform efforts were hijacked by the Democrat coalition in the House. Last session House Speaker Joe Straus (R–San Antonio), referred the legislation to his hatchet man, State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana), who hijacked the proposal.
What originated as a serious reform measure intended to shed a light on lawmakers and lobbyists quickly became an all-out, unconstitutional assault on Texans’ First Amendment rights. Though conservatives attempted to salvage the legislation, those efforts failed and Cook gloated that ethics reform was “graveyard dead.”
This time however Taylor is starting earlier, passing the legislation quickly out of the chamber as compared to last session’s passage in April. He’s also employed a smart strategy of using lawmakers’ previous votes against them in order to force them to oppose the effort openly and gained the support of House Admin Chair Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth) who has pledged to keep “poison pills” like those unconstitutional regulations inserted by Cook from making their way into the bill again.
Despite Taylor’s efforts, ethics reform still has an uphill track to make it through the Texas House and to the governor’s desk. Reform advocates will have to keep close watch on the legislation as it proceeds and demand their lawmakers join Abbott and the Senate in making the issue a priority.