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Ethics reform dies its expected death

The only surprise is that it took this long.

BagOfMoney

With no collective will to expose dark money contributions in Texas, a major ethics overhaul was snuffed out in the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session.

“It’s dead,” Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said Saturday afternoon. “When the Senate chose not to include campaign disclosure reform at all, there’s really no reason to go forward. That was the most important thing from the House’s perspective.”

Cook was referring to the dark money provision that would require politically active nonprofits, which have poured millions into state and federal elections in recent years, to disclose their donors.

Hoping to find a last-ditch compromise, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who pushed the reform effort through the state Senate, wrote a letter urging House members to strike a deal by passing what both chambers have already agreed on. But that didn’t include the dark money amendment — an idea that has pitted Republicans against each other.

Taylor, along with Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Senate, have been unwilling to embrace any restrictions on the anonymously contributed money, which influential conservatives have fought to keep secret. Last session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill requiring disclosure of dark money and Abbott applauded him for it.

“The fact that folks are championing dark money is amazing to me,” Cook said.

Taylor offered two different versions of a compromise to a joint House-Senate “conference committee,” made up of negotiators from each chamber. Neither had dark money restrictions in it, but they would have strengthened considerably the disclosures of legislative conflicts of interest, shed more light on lobbyist wining and dining, and required lawmakers to reveal more sources of their income.

“While we disagree on substance, it is our hope that the House shares our desire to be accountable to the people we serve,” Taylor wrote. “It would be an embarrassing failure of leadership if the House opts to let this important legislation die in conference committee, especially during a session [that’s] supposed to be devoted to strengthening the ethical standards of elected officials. Texans expect us to deliver.”

With a Sunday night deadline for bills to be passed looming, a handful of ethics proposals remain viable, including a proposal shedding more light on elected officials who make money from local governments and another bill closing the “double-dipping” loophole that longtime politicians can use — as Perry once did — to draw a salary and pension at the same time.

But those minor tweaks are a far cry from the sweeping reforms that Abbott called for on the campaign trail and again in February, when he told lawmakers during his state of the state address that he wanted to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.”

Remember when Greg Abbott was all about “major” ethics reform? Those were the days. Surely none but the most gullible among us believed it in the first place, but even if one held on to a thread of hope, surely his lack of any leadership on the issue during the session told us all the real story. The fact that “dark money” regulations got this far tells me that it is possible for real ethics reform to happen – Republicans are the bigger targets of this kind of campaign spending these days, so it’s not really a straight partisan issue – but in the absence of actual leadership from the Governor’s office, it will probably take a major (and well-timed) scandal for it to happen. Good luck with that.

Or maybe it is hopeless, at least as things now stand:

All that Republican infighting about revealing political “dark money” during the just-concluded session of the Texas Legislature was probably for naught.

Gov. Greg Abbott has come out firmly against the idea.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in the Capitol, Abbott said he had already written about the issue when he was on the Texas Supreme Court, telling reporters that legislation requiring secret political donors to come out of the shadows would violate the U.S. Constitution. Proponents of dark money disclosure dispute the claim.

“I’ve already written about it as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court,” Abbott said. “I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional, and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions, and I think it’s important for legislators not to try to pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional.”

Abbott stopped short of saying that he would’ve vetoed a dark money disclosure bill if it had reached his desk, but his opposition makes any such legislation a remote possibility. Opposition from influential conservative groups that use dark money to fund their campaign activities hasn’t helped the pro-disclosure crowd much, either.

[…]

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, assistant professor at the Stetson University College of Law, wrote in a 2011 scholarly paper that Citizens United and another landmark case known as Doe vs. Reed give “considerable leeway” for legislators to require disclosure of money used to influence elections.

“In other words, the Supreme Court just expanded the constitutional bounds for requiring disclosure of the funding of election-related speech, and states should use this license to expand their disclosure laws accordingly,” she wrote.

Which only goes to show that Abbott was a lousy legal scholar who fit the law to his opinions. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any more ridiculous:

It’s no secret that Texas legislators make poverty wages — $7,200 a year to be exact — so they generally must have some other source of income to make ends meet.

A look at Sen. Joan Huffman’s 2014 ethics disclosures, however, doesn’t shed much light on that: All she lists for “occupational income” is her Senate salary. Combined with some stock dividends, the grand total of disclosed income comes to no more than about $12,000 a year — even though the Houston Republican reported living in a River Oaks home appraised at $3.2 million.

One explanation for the gap might stem from something that’s not included in her ethics reports: any mention of the income or vast business holdings of her husband, nightclub owner and manager Keith Lawyer, who is tied to dozens of businesses with current or past filings at the office of the Texas secretary of state. Lawyer briefly became an issue in the Houston Republican’s 2008 Senate race, amid reports that Huffman received heavy support from interests tied to liquor, gambling and nightclubs.

Huffman says she has fully complied with state disclosure laws. And she lists interests in one business entity, a ranch partnership she owns with her husband, on her 2014 report.

But the Houston senator’s last-minute advocacy of controversial amendments widening the so-called “spousal loophole” — quietly slipped onto bills that were supposed to increase transparency — will make it even harder for voters to untangle the finances of their elected representatives in Austin.

Meanwhile, her role in pushing for the changes has sparked criticism from government watchdogs and her former Democratic opponent.

“This amendment does not suggest that she is interested in allowing constituents, Texans, or other legislators who are voting on bills she may bring or sponsor or champion, [to] know anything about areas in which she may have a conflict of interest,” said Rita Lucido, a Houston lawyer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Huffman last year.

Huffman said in an interview on Saturday night that she did not push the change in the law to shield her husband’s business interests from public view. And she said she has always disclosed what state ethics laws says she must.

“I think I report exactly what I’m required to report under the law, and I will continue to do so and follow the law utterly to its exact requirement,” she said.

Asked if she could afford to live on the limited income she reports on her ethics reports, Huffman said: “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

All together now: It’s what’s legal that’s the real scandal. Thanks for illustrating that so clearly to us, Joan. More here from the Trib and from the Lone Star Project, and a joint statement from TPJ and Public Citizen is here.

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