We deserve betterFri, Nov. 03, 2006
By MARIO X. PEREZ
Special to the Star-Telegram
Texas is a great state, and Texans have earned a reputation for kindness, honesty and plain-spokenness. Unfortunately, at times we have not had government that matches our reputation. It is time that ordinary Texans band together to demand transparency and accountability in state government.
To that end, a coalition of statewide organizations including Common Cause Texas, the League of Women Voters, Texans for Public Justice, Gray Panthers of Texas, Public Citizen Texas and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission have launched the "Texas Reform Agenda: Making Democracy Work" initiative.
These diverse groups have agreed upon five important reforms for the 80th session of the Legislature.
Nearly 400 questionnaires have been mailed to candidates for Texas House, Texas Senate, governor and lieutenant governor. We hope that they will commit to support all or portions of the Making Democracy Work reforms, and we will work in a bipartisan fashion to enact them into law when the Legislature convenes.
The Texas Reform Agenda comprises:
Placing a $100,000 aggregate limit on individual contributions in a two-year political cycle. Texas is one of a handful of states with no limits on the size of campaign contributions. The failure to adopt some reasonable limits on contributions has created a class of "mega-donors" who wield a disproportionate amount of political power.
During the 2004 election cycle, 87 individuals or couples donated more than $100,000 each to state candidates and political committees. These contributions amounted to nearly $30 million and accounted for 10 percent of all political donations. We support limits modeled after federal campaign laws that cap the aggregate amount an individual can contribute to federal candidates, political action committees and political parties at $101,400 per two-year cycle.
Although the courts have ruled that campaign contributions constitute political speech, it is important that we regulate to ensure that a few moneyed individuals do not drown out the voices of everyday citizens.
Closing the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobby. Most Texans would be shocked to learn that legislators have been able to resign their seats and immediately "cash in" on a lucrative career lobbying their former colleagues. Unlike the majority of states and Congress, Texas places no restrictions on lawmakers and key staff members who choose to leave public service and become paid lobbyists.
The laws that restrict directors, key staff and board members of the state's regulatory bodies from immediately lobbying their respective agencies do not apply to the Legislature. Yet the potential conflicts of interest are as great, if not greater, for legislators and their staff as they are for regulators.
We support a two-year "cooling-off" period before legislators and key staff can lobby the Legislature for compensation or serve as staff or consultants for registered lobbyists or lobby firms.
Keeping judges independent by appointment and retention elections. Texas is one of the few states that elect justices and judges by political party. This system opens the door to the perception that justice is for sale when lawyers and litigants contribute large sums of money to candidates. Texans deserve a judicial system free of political and special-interest influence.
Some 30 states have adopted the nonpartisan retention and election system (merit election) that combines both appointment and election in which judges, after a specified period of years, will stand in uncontested retention elections seeking voter approval based on their records. This system would strengthen public confidence in the judicial system.
Recording all nonceremonial legislative votes. This issue has gained support steadily in recent years. Citizens have a right to know how their elected representatives vote on bills. Texas does not routinely record how individual legislators vote, especially on major controversial issues. Forty out of 50 states require legislators to record their votes. Although the Texas House and Senate strengthened their respective rules regarding the recording of individual votes last session, those rules can be changed.
A constitutional amendment would ensure that each lawmaker's votes would be recorded at each legislative session.
Creating an independent redistricting commission. The commission should be appointed, small in size, bipartisan, odd in number and reflect the diversity of the state. The commission would be responsible for holding hearings around the state and then drawing district lines.
The Legislature would be responsible for final approval of the redistricting plan. Specific provisions would be made for automatic court review.
The further that redistricting can be removed from the direct participation of legislators, the less likely it is that incumbent or partisan interests would hurt the process. We might not be able to take the politics out of redistricting, but we can darn sure take the politicians out.
Enacting these sensible measures will help restore lost trust in our institutions and help democracy work in Texas. Then perhaps our state's reputation for straightforward honesty will unquestionably be shared by our state government.
Fort Worth attorney Mario X. Perez is chairman of Common Cause Texas.