I strongly support efforts to reform our ethics laws, and I am pleased to joint author Senate Bill 14. I believe this legislation will go a long way to bolster the public’s confidence in elected government by strengthening our ethics laws.
The bill includes some specific, common-sense provisions to keep the public apprised of potential conflicts of interest, including:
- reducing lobbyists’ reporting threshold for elected officials and their family, and closing a loophole allowing lobbyists to avoid disclosures by splitting costs between several lobbyists, and
- requiring state and local elected officials to disclose certain written contracts between themselves, their businesses, and families with governmental entities.
There will surely be those who continue to take issue with bill. Some would suggest the conflict of interest provisions might disincentivize individuals who are not themselves already independently wealthy from running for public office, simply because their work may run adjacent to work in the legislature.
Ours is a part-time legislature and one cannot support a family on the salary of a lawmaker alone. I’m not insensitive to this concern. Nevertheless, I think the countervailing public interest in citizens’ right to know who is governing them outweighs these concerns.
Although I am supportive of the provisions included in the bill, I am disappointed that several provisions that were in last session’s ethics bill (S.B. 19) are not included. For example, two amendments that I added to last session’s bill:
- First, a provision that requires filers disclosure of all sources of income, including federal or state governmental benefits; and
- Second, a provision requiring that every financial statement be submitted electronically through a secure website maintained by the Ethics Commission. Importantly, under my amendment, these submissions would then be accessible electronically. In the 21st Century, I’m not sure why this isn’t already the law, especially since the Ethics Commission indicated to lawmakers that they wanted this authority.
It’s a shame these provisions aren’t included in this session’s S.B. 14.
I’m also disappointed the bill doesn’t include any dark money provisions — that is, any provisions requiring disclosure of donations to political nonprofits that work to influence campaigns. These nonprofits are not required to disclose who is padding their coffers while they work for or against candidates across Texas. It’s worth noting that these dark money disclosure provisions are supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In the same way that the public should know who is supporting a lawmaker’s campaign, and what people with business before the legislature may also be cutting lawmakers a paycheck, I believe the public should know who exactly is writing checks that support political nonprofits who endorse — or attack — lawmakers as they run for public office.
Further, while I’m no fan of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, it does make clear that states can require disclosure of campaign donations, including to nonprofits. In fact, some states like California and Rhode Island already have similar disclosure laws.
Transparency bills serve the public interest. Voters deserve as much information as possible about the elected officials they send to Austin to represent their interests. Disclosure laws strengthen the public bond by shedding light on any appearance of impropriety, and give voters greater confidence that elected officials keep sight of who they really work for — the public.
In sum, while I wish the bill included at least some of the aforementioned provisions, the legislation will allow us to take several important steps in the right direction, and has my full support.