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A state agency that bills itself as the government’s ethics watchdog was caught red-handed by senators today making false statements in a bid to get more taxpayer funds.

Established in the state constitution by voters only to set travel reimbursements for state employees and recommend pay raises for legislators, the Texas Ethics Commission has grown into the speech-police—often working to silence citizens and intimidate candidates challenging incumbent lawmakers.

An agency that relies on intimidation tactics and the threat of being called “unethical” by political opponents, the TEC often issues exorbitant fines for paperwork errors—even when those filing the paperwork discover the errors themselves and try to correct them.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) tried in 2017 to correct that, ensuring—among other things—that the agency doesn’t attack people for fixing their own minor mistakes within two weeks of being made aware of it. The legislation unanimously passed the Senate in 2017 but died in the House, so Birdwell is trying again this year with Senate Bill 548.

In 2017, the identical measure was rated by the TEC as having no cost—which makes sense, because it actually reduced the workload on the agency. But the 2019 version received an outlandish $300,000 price tag by the TEC, with the agency claiming it would require them to hire two new staff lawyers … to do less work.

Interestingly, that’s the same general-spending request the TEC is making. The “ethics” agency was caught trying to hold a commonsense, pro-citizen measure hostage. At the last minute, the “fiscal note” was changed back without explanation to the 2017 “no cost” rating.

No one from the Ethics Commission spoke at the hearing.

State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said the current practices of the agency make people not want to correct the errors they find. “It is an agency that has a history of leaving people hanging.”

Birdwell said he wants the TEC “de-weaponized,” saying it should be more responsive rather than combative. Among his other reforms was a requirement that complaints against candidates, incumbents, or citizens would have to be addressed by the TEC within 120 days.

The Senate’s State Affairs Committee passed SB 548 unanimously and has referred the measure to the full Senate for consideration.

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