Early in 2016, Gov. Greg Abbott declared genuine ethics reform his top legislative priority for the upcoming 85th session of the Texas Legislature. Abbott had sharp words for representatives in the House who might be plotting to kill his reform agenda, as they did in 2015.

In an interview with KVUE political reporter Mark Wiggins, Abbott said that he wanted to ensure his ethics reform package passed this session.

“We need to ensure that the one priority I had this last session passes this next session and that is genuine ethics reform,” said Abbott. “It’s reprehensible that the members of the legislature tried to water down ethics reform and violate their compact with their fellow citizens, their voters who put them in office. I think it is shameful for these legislators not to pass ethics reform. They are cheating their own voters. I demand that they pass ethics reforms this next time.”

In 2015, Abbott declared ethics reform for lawmakers and public officials to be an emergency item. He praised and supported legislation carried by State Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) that unanimously passed the Texas Senate. Taylor’s comprehensive ethics reform legislation contained the following major provisions:

Requiring public officials to disclose on their personal financial statements the contracts they and their families have with government entities, any legal referral fees they receive, and any fees they are paid as counsel for government bonds.

  • Prohibiting elected officials from working as lobbyists while they are in public office.
  • Ending the revolving door between the legislature and the lobby by prohibiting former legislators from working as hired gun lobbyists for at least two years after leaving office.
  • Setting a hard cap on the value of gifts, such as food, beverages, and entertainment that a lobbyist can give to a public official without being required to disclose the recipient.
  • Providing that members of the legislature vacate their office when they are finally convicted of a felony.

In recent years, the left has advanced an agenda of oppressive speech regulations aimed at silencing private citizens under the Orwellian guise of “ethics reform.” In 2015, House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) and House Speaker Joe Straus (R–San Antonio) stripped out or diluted the major provisions of Abbott’s reform bill concerning restrictions on lawmakers and lobbyists, replacing them with provisions that imposed draconian regulations on the speech of civic groups and churches and banning the recording of legislators at the Texas Capitol.

Sources at the capitol inform Texas Scorecard that it was the provision requiring the disclosure of government contracts that caused House members the most heartburn, with as many as 50 of the 150 House members having some form of business contract with state and local governments.

After the session Abbott scolded the House members, saying it was important that they not try to pass legislation that has already been ruled unconstitutional. His comments pertained to a Texas Supreme Court decision he authored in the 1990s protecting the freedom of speech and association of groups subject to burdensome disclosure regulations.

House officials know the governor is opposed to their unconstitutional proposals, and they know the courts have already ruled against them. If legislators again attempt to saddle Abbott’s ethics proposal with provisions that violate the Texas and US constitutions, they will be guilty of a cynical and corrupt attempt to insert a poison pill into the legislation in order to avoid transparency for themselves.

In addition to the governor’s ethics agenda, legislators will be taking a hard look at the Texas Ethics Commission and ways to reform its process so that the speech-regulating agency can no longer oppress Texans.

Legislators have a choice during the 85th session. Will they stand with the citizens and governor, be transparent, and restore Texans’ faith in their state government? Or will they cheat their own voters and violate their compact with Texans by pushing measures that violate the first principles of the US and Texas constitutions?

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.