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Public Citizen Texas

Turner’s public agency work

A lot of the attacks in the Mayoral campaign so far have been aimed at Adrian Garcia, in part to knock him out of second place where he is perceived to be, and in part because there’s some real material to use. There has been some sniping between Costello and King, as they fish in the same ponds for voters, and some other stuff here and there, but not much as yet against the perceived and poll-supported frontrunner Sylvester Turner. Until now, anyway.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Two of Sylvester Turner’s mayoral rivals are criticizing the longtime lawmaker for reaping thousands of dollars in legal and land title work for public agencies, questioning the ethics of the sometimes lucrative arrangements while he holds elective office.

It is legal for Texas lawmakers, who serve part time and earn $7,200 a year plus $190 per day of legislative session, to do work for local government entities.

Two of Turner’s rivals in the race to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker – former City Attorney Ben Hall and former Congressman Chris Bell – said the practice appears improper when it involves fees earned from entities over which he may wield authority as a state legislator.

“It may not be illegal, but it sure has the appearance of impropriety, especially given the timing in some of the instances,” said Hall, who last week called for an end to “pay-to-play” politics.

Both Hall and Bell stand to gain votes from Turner, who has positioned himself as an establishment candidate and has led or tied for the lead in recent polls.

Turner defended his work, saying it is neither illegal nor unethical for lawmakers to receive public business while in office.

“I think my track record speaks for itself,” he said. “When I believe people have not been performing up to par, regardless of the relationship – business relationship – that they may have had with my firm, I have not been hesitant in holding people accountable and responsible.”

Hall and Bell have cited $144,000 that Turner’s land title company, American Title, earned in 2014 on a Houston Independent School District real estate deal. Hall also has questioned what he says was more than $3 million Turner’s companies received in payments from Houston’s housing department for professional services.

“We have certain ethical standards that we need to abide by, and first and foremost is staying away from conflicts of interest,” Bell said.

In 2012, Turner initially criticized HISD’s $1.9 billion bond plan, saying he was worried it would not do enough to encourage students to attend neighborhood campuses. He ultimately endorsed the issue, which passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Two years later, his title company earned $144,000 on an HISD real estate transaction.


Tom “Smitty” Smith of the Austin-based advocacy group Public Citizen Texas said it is not uncommon for lawyer legislators to have contracts with one or more government agencies.

“A lot of the work – of legal work in this state – has to do with municipal or county or district governments of various kinds,” Smith said. “The gray area comes in the choice of that legislator’s law firm. Is it an open bidding process? Or is it just simply a gimme?”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, another Austin advocacy group, said the practice comes with potential conflicts.

“Are the local governments hiring a particular lawmaker because that lawmaker has jurisdiction over issues that concern the local government?” McDonald asked. “That’s the basic issue. That’s the basic conflict.”

Let’s get one thing cleared up right off: Any time Ben Hall makes an allegation about any other candidate, the first question he should be asked is “So, have you paid your property taxes yet?” With that out of the way, there’s not much to this story. One can certainly argue that this kind of paid advocacy ought to be illegal, or at least more tightly regulated, and I would not disagree. But given that it is legal, this story is basically about nothing. There’s no allegation of wrongdoing on Turner’s part – the activity is legal, the fees he charged were in the normal range, and he did the work he was paid to do. It was all properly disclosed. The two professional ethics watchdogs had only the perfunctory “could cause a conflict” admonishment for it. People may not know about it, though this was hardly a secret, and they may not care for it once they do know it, which is all fair. It’s well suited for a negative mailer, but unless there’s something else out there, it’s not going to generate more than one story.

The odds never favor ethics reforms

Better to keep your hopes down and not suffer too much disappointment.


Gov. Greg Abbott pledged on the campaign trail to lead the charge to improve the state’s ethics laws, and now lawmakers and advocates pushing for reform are looking to the newly elected governor to help breathe life into proposals at the Legislature.

Lawmakers of both parties at the state Capitol talk a big game when it comes to strengthening laws aimed at rooting out corruption or providing more transparency to the public. That mostly has amounted to lip service, advocates of open government say, as substantive ethics reform has continually been curbed.

This session, efforts again will include attempts to require disclosure of contracts elected officials and their families have with the public sector, to make lawmakers’ personal financial statements available online, and to slow down the revolving door of lawmakers leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. All have failed previously.

There also are plans to propose legislation addressing secret campaign donors.

And a package of ethics measures Abbott laid out on the campaign trail, from putting more teeth into conflicts-of-interest statutes to beefing up campaign finance reporting requirements, are expected to get serious attention this session.

“Gov. Abbott made this a large part of his campaign for a good reason,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a second-term Republican from Southlake. “People are afraid that somehow we’re working on things that could enrich other politicians.”


Tom “Smitty” Smith of watchdog group Public Citizen Texas said he remains cynical about what actually will come to fruition, noting Abbott’s plan did not include any mention of so-called “dark money” – political contributions in which the donor is not disclosed.

“Abbott has clearly signaled he wants to do some sort of ethics reform,” Smith said. “It’s more of a matter of, what is a reform?”

Bet the under, that’s my advice. It’s not even all on Abbott, to be honest, but more about the MQS mafia. Of course, they’re big backers of Abbott, who I expect will be honest enough to stay bought. Even if some form of ethics reform gets through, kneecapping the Public Integrity Unit and trimming funds for the Texas Ethics Commission will ensure that any new rules will be largely unenforceable anyway. So stay pessimistic, but hope for the best.

We need more mobile ID stations

From the inbox, from the League of Women Voters.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need


AUSTIN, TX – “We are deeply concerned that eligible voters could be disenfranchised this November and we urge the Secretary of State to expand her efforts to provide Election Identification Certificates to voters who need them,” according to Elaine Wiant, President of the League of Women Voters of Texas.”

The League of Women Voters of Texas along with Public Citizen, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and Texas Freedom Network Education today called on the Secretary of State, Nandita Berry to expand the 2013 efforts to provide EICs to voters who need them.

The League and its partners recommend that the State provide mobile ID stations in each of the major metropolitan areas (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio) for at least seven days, including at least two weekend days, between now and Election Day. Additional locations outside of the major metropolitan areas including rural communities should also be provided to adequately respond to the needs of Texas voters.

In order to make the mobile ID stations accessible to those without the required IDs, we recommend that weekend and non-traditional work hours such as evenings be emphasized in all communities. The groups asked that the dates and locations of the mobile ID stations be set at least 21 days in advance, in order to give individuals sufficient time to obtain the underlying documentation required, such as birth certificates, to obtain EICs.

According to Wiant, “Local leaders are best positioned to identify the communities with the greatest need for this service and the places that community members can most easily access. Therefore, we ask that the Secretary ask local leaders for recommendations for selecting locations for the mobile ID stations.”

The State had previously estimated that a substantial number of registered Texas voters-between 600,000 and 800,000-lack an approved form of photo ID. The data provided to the United States Department of Justice as of September 2011 and January 2012 show that minority communities could be disparately impacted. In addition, a federal court found that “a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID” and that the “burdens associated with obtaining ID” will weigh most heavily upon the State’s racial minorities. Young people ages 18 to 24 and the elderly are also believed to be among those who are more likely than the general population to not have an approved form of photo ID.

The November 2014 election is the first major election under the Texas photo ID requirement. To be accepted, the ID must be current or expired no more than 60 days, and be one of the following:
Texas driver’s license, personal ID card, concealed carry license, or election identification certificate, or

  • United States passport, military ID, citizenship or naturalization certificate
  • Photo IDS that cannot be accepted at the polls include out-of-state driver’s licenses, employer IDs, and school IDs.

An exact match between the name on the photo ID and the list of registered voters is not required to be accepted to vote a regular ballot. If names don’t match, additional information will be considered in accepting the voter. Voters without acceptable ID will be able to vote a provisional ballot and provide ID within 6 days of the election.

An Election Identification Certificate can be obtained by voters without one of the other acceptable IDs by providing proof of citizenship and identity at Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) offices.

Battleground Texas, which has joined the call for more mobile ID stations, put out this helpful backgrounder on the issue. That state estimate of 600,000 to 800,000 voters who lack ID is the low end – up to 1.2 million registered voters may lack the accepted forms of ID, and black and Latino voters are far more likely to be in that bucket than white voters. The state of Texas and Greg Abbott in his role as its attorney have claimed repeatedly that there was nothing discriminatory or suppressionist about the voter ID law. Doing their best to ensure that all eligible voters who lack ID can get it would be a step in the direction of backing up those claims.

On conflicts of interest

Many members of the Texas Legislature have conflicts of interest, or at least they would if the rules on such in the Lege were more clear.

Advocates of a part-time legislature say the system keeps lawmakers in touch with their constituents. Lawmakers are expected to serve their communities, and check their personal interests at the Capitol’s massive oak doors.

A study of the personal financial statements filed annually by lawmakers with the Texas Ethics Commission shows most lawmakers’ professional lives are deeply intertwined with their government service, or are directly affected by legislation debated each session.

For example, last session saw Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, lead a fight against payday loan controls while candidly acknowledging that the proposed restrictions would hurt his personal payday loan businesses. When pressed during debate whether his vocal opposition constituted a conflict of interest, Elkins replied, “On this particular issue, I am probably as knowledgeable as anybody, and I think the body (the House) needs to hear the expertise.”

Knowledgeable legislators also weighed in last session on reform of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency: Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, a lawyer who handled hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of claims against the insurance agency, and then-Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, an insurance agent who has sold windstorm policies. Taylor, recently elected to the Texas Senate, chaired the committee overseeing TWIA; Eiland was vice chair. Both weathered a storm of criticism for their involvement in legislation with a direct impact on their private livelihoods.

What exactly constitutes a conflict of interest for a Texas legislator?

“The laws are too weak to provide any meaningful guidance for legislators and there is no meaningful enforcement,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen.

One solution, Smith said, would be for lawmakers to follow the Texas Local Government Code, which advises local elected officials to abstain from issues affecting businesses in which they have more than a $15,000 investment or receive 10 percent of their income. “That bright line would be more effective,” he said. Currently, lawmakers do not have to disclose a dollar amount for each source of occupational income.

A big part of the problem is that being a legislator means needing to take a six-month leave of absence from your job every other year, for which you get paid all of $7,200. It’s not particularly conducive to holding a regular job, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who want to hire you. It’s just that these are often people and organizations with interests in particular legislation, and they want to hire you for your expertise as a legislator. As you might imagine, that can be a problem, especially since the rules of financial disclosure for legislators allows them a fair bit of leeway in describing how they earn their money. To me, the answer is to recognize that being a legislator is a fulltime job regardless of how much the Lege is actually in session, and pay legislators a salary that recognizes this. Once you do that, you can very strictly limit the amount of things for which they can be paid outside of their legislative duties, and ensure there are sufficient punishments for breaking those rules. I don’t expect anything like this to happen any time soon, but until then I don’t think we have much grounds to complain about what these folks do, or think they have to do, to earn a living.

Lawsuit filed to force TCEQ to regulate greenhouse gases

Apparently, if you want the TCEQ to do its job, you need to file a lawsuit against them to make them do it. Which is what Public Citizen did on Tuesday, with a request to stop the permitting of coal-fired power plants in the meantime.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues air pollution permits that set limits on toxic releases, but the agency says there is no need to regulate carbon dioxide. Texas emits more greenhouse gases, made up mostly of CO2 emissions, than any other state.

The lawsuit by Public Citizen — which describes itself as a consumer advocacy organization — calls for greenhouse gas limits to be imposed as part of the permitting process, based on a 2007 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that classified carbon dioxide as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

“The time has come for the TCEQ to take its head out of the sand and begin the process to regulate CO2 emission from Texas sources,” Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said in a statement announcing the suit.

Bryan Shaw, the chairman of the TCEQ, said it would not make sense for the state to regulate CO2.

“The science on global warming is far from settled,” he said in a statement. “Neither Congress nor the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have been able to promulgate final rules on greenhouse gas regulation. What is certain is that if done incorrectly, CO2 regulations will impose great costs on Texas without any guarantee of a measurable environmental benefit. Reducing CO2 in Texas will do nothing to lower CO2 globally, but will have the effect of sending U.S. jobs to China and India.”

Shaw’s words are the environmental equivalent of saying that there’s a “controversy” over evolution. The argument isn’t over whether or not it’s happening, it’s over how fast it’s happening and how much time we have to do something about it before we’re well and truly screwed. Sadly, this is par for the course with a Rick Perry appointee. You can read Public Citizen’s statement on the lawsuit here, and the lawsuit itself here (both PDFs).

Bryan Shaw

One gets used to disappointments with Rick Perry.

In late 2007, the appointment of Bryan Shaw, a Texas A&M professor and air pollution expert, to the three-member board that oversees the state’s environmental agency drew praise from a prominent government watchdog.

Tom “Smitty” Smith said then that Gov. Rick Perry’s selection “has lots of the skills and talents needed to figure out the impacts of air pollution across the state. Overall, I’m encouraged that this appears to be a very well-qualified commissioner.”

That was 19 months ago. This is now.

“His eyes are so clouded by the pollution in Texas that he couldn’t see a fact in front of him,” said Smith, director of the Texas chapter of Public Citizen.

In his short tenure, Shaw has rankled environmentalists who had hoped that a fresh day dawned with a scientist on the dais of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — a frequent target of complaints over its stewardship of the state’s air and water.

As a commissioner, Shaw has sided with industry in some bitter permit disputes, advocated free-market approaches to solving pollution problems and supported the governor’s sharp criticism of potential federal regulation of climate-altering gases.

Quelle surprise, no? That’s our Governor for you, always meeting our low expectations of him. For more on Shaw, see Floor Pass and Sen. Kirk Watson’s statement in opposition to Shaw’s nomination to the TCEQ.

Solar power

As you know, I’ve been a big advocate for wind energy on this site. Texas has done a lot to make itself a leader in that industry, and I believe it will pay many long-term dividends. But just as we have a lot of wind in this state (insert your own joke here), we also have a lot of sunshine, and as we do with wind, we ought to take advantage of that. Fortunately, there’s a lot of action on that front in the Lege, with much of it taking place this past week in the Senate.

Altogether, according to David Power, the deputy director of Public Citizen Texas, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, there are 69 renewable energy bills before the legislature, and over 50 of them promote solar power — far more than ever before.

“There are senators and representatives that are talking about solar that have never mentioned the word probably in their lives,” he said. “We’ve actually heard the term ‘global warming,’ and two years ago that was called ‘the G word’ — you didn’t talk about it.”

Mark Strama, a state representative who is a leading promoter of renewable energy, has introduced at least five green bills this year (including a measure that would allow local governments to create a property tax financing program for solar, along the lines of several California cities).

“It just seems like everybody recognizes our leadership in wind, and that government policy got us where we are today in wind,” he told me last month.

In solar, he added, “We need to catch up.”

BOR has more on this.

With over 60 bills in the House and over 30 in the Senate all pertaining to green energy initiatives, the Solar Alliance has targeted 6 major criterion needed in in any solar package in order to trigger the kind of job growth a widespread solar industry can create.

1. 3,000 total megawatts of installed solar over a 5- to 10-year program;
2. At least 1,000 of these megawatts dedicated to distributed generation;
3. Statewide application, with every region, every electric provider, and every customer class included, because if everyone benefits, everyone should participate;
4. Rate impact for residential consumers of less than $1.00 per month;
5. Provide an average of $250 million annually in incentives for the life of the program;
6. Program expires when the goal is reached.

This is an interesting tactic. Instead of advocating for a package of bills, the Solar Alliance has focused on specific policy positions.

If nothing else, that may help the rest of us evaluate the progress made in terms of what did and did not get passed. The Solar Alliance and the Alliance for a Clean Texas are good resources to visit if you want more involvement.

Finally, along similar lines, there’s a push for a coal moratorium. Maybe these things can happen this session, and maybe not. But the chances for any of them are better than they’ve been in recent memory, perhaps in forever.