As we have pointed out extensively in the past, there are major ethical concerns over the campaign finance reporting being performed by past and current members of the Texas House and Senate, covering areas such as unreported campaign loans, payments to relatives, and using campaign cash for personal expenses. The government entity responsible for overseeing these issues is the Texas Ethics Commission, but in less than 48 hours, they quickly dismissed our meticulous, months’ long endeavor and defended their “important work.”
Over the last two legislative sessions, several attempts have been made to increase accountability through ethics reform. In his first State of the State address earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott listed ethics reforms as an emergency item, including “more disclosure of campaign finance information.” Just last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick included in his interim charges demands for ethics reforms. However, nearly all past reform attempts have come to a screeching halt. Why? The short answer is Joe Straus. The long answer is, like Congress exempting themselves from certain onerous laws, the Texas Legislature doesn’t want to scrutinize itself and play by the same rules everyone else does.
So what can Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov Patrick do when Speaker Straus is a continual stumbling block legislatively for legitimate ethics reform bills? Abbott and Patrick should work outside the legislature by changing the makeup of the Texas Ethics Commission. Despite what Straus-appointed TEC Chairman Paul W. Hobby will tell you, the Texas Ethics Commission does have quite a bit of power to enforce rules IF it wants too. The TEC is made up of eight commissioners, four appointed by the Governor, two by the Lieutenant Governor, and two by the House Speaker. Starting next month and then again in 2017, Abbott and Patrick have the opportunity to load the committee with enough pro-ethics reform commissioners to bypass Joe Straus. This would be especially important since both the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the TEC are Straus appointees. If Abbott and Patrick were able to load the committee with six pro-ethics reform commissioners, the TEC would then be able to vote to start auditing the substantial number of questionable campaign accounts held by members of the Texas Legislature.
The appointment process is fairly clumsy. This is how the appointment process works:
- The House submits 10 names to the Governor where he must select two from different political parties that hold a primary.
- The Senate also submits 10 names to the Governor where he must select two from different political parties that hold a primary.
- The House submits 10 names to the Speaker where he must select two from different political parties that hold a primary.
- The Senate submits 10 names to the Lieutenant Governor where he must select two from different political parties that hold a primary.
On face value, it would seem that the House and Senate controls who gets appointed; however, the law states that the Governor can reject “may reject all names on any list submitted” from the lists submitted to him. This means he can continue to reject the lists the House and Senate give him until he finds the names he wants. So, if Abbott and Patrick work together, they can make the best appointments possible to move towards ethics reform.
While this strategy is only a partial solution to solving the ethics issues emanating from the Texas Legislature, it is one that changes a very powerful committee responsible for ethics oversight and starts the process of changing the culture of indifference towards having a transparent and accountable government. Hopefully, Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick feel the same and move forward in November.