by Emily Cook
This week, Senator Van Taylor rolled out Senate Bill 14, a comprehensive ethics package aimed at increasing accountability and transparency among the activities of elected officials.
Comprehensive ethics reform has long been a priority of Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Taylor. During the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, Senator Taylor first authored the Governor’s ethics reform package. Unfortunately, Senator Taylor’s common-sense measure failed to become law due to a complete hijacking of this bill in the Texas House of Representatives by Chairmen Byron Cook and Charlie Geren, along with their Democrat colleagues. Instead of shining a light on the financial entanglements and conflicts-of-interest held by elected officials, as the original bill provided, the Texas House tacked on various measures increasing government scrutiny and rules on private citizens petitioning their government.
Of course, the Senate, led by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, refused to allow such blatant attacks on the First Amendment rights of Texans, and the House’s version was not approved by the full Senate. Likewise, Governor Abbott decried the House’s misguided efforts.
This time, however, sources around the Capitol are more optimistic that a “clean” ethics reform package will be able to clear both chambers. Highlights in Senate Bill 14 include:
- Establishing that politicians who are convicted of a felony lose both their office and their pensions;
- Publicly disclosing contracts between governmental entities and a lawmaker’s close family, including compensation from legal referrals;
- Lowering the threshold for a lobbyist’s mandatory reporting of an elected official’s name whom the lobbyist “wines and dines;”
- Providing a two-year hiatus after a lawmaker leaves office before he or she may work as a lobbyist and contribute leftover political contributions to other candidates as a lobbyist;
- Prohibiting an individual to simultaneously be a lobbyist and candidate for public office; and
- Prohibiting elected officials from engaging in activities which would otherwise require him or her to register with the state as a paid-for-hire lobbyist.
Senate Bill 14 has broad, bipartisan support in the Texas Senate; so far, 21 out of 30 senators have co-authored the legislation, including five long-serving Democrats.
On the House side, the current plan is rumored to break Senate Bill 14 up into five or six individual bills, with most of the measures carried by Chairmen Charlie Geren. While Chairman Geren has publicly stated he has no plans to amend the troublesome policies from the 84th Session onto this year’s attempts, conservatives will need to watch closely those provisions which can be vehicles for infringements on citizens’ First Amendment rights. Additionally, conservatives can expect at least two stand-alone bills this session taking particular aim at whom citizens can associate with politically, how much political involvement a private citizen may have, and how much money they can spend.
Diligence is key in ensuring those who have availed themselves of the public trust –elected officials – are the ones being regulated, not private citizens.
Update: Senate Bill 14 is scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 31st in the Senate Committee on State Affairs.