Handouts with firm grip on government
By The Editorial Board |May 27, 2008
State Rep. Carl Isett, a Lubbock Republican, has posed an interesting ethical question by paying his wife’s company with money from his campaign chest.
Is she performing an accepted professional accounting service for Isett, chairman of the powerful Sunset Advisory Commission? Or is her company a convenient way for Isett to set up his family with campaign donations from lobbyists who want his vote?
The Texas Ethics Commission will decide that matter later this year, but in the meantime, Isett continues to pay his wife’s company nearly $40,000 a year. Texas law prohibits legislators from paying themselves, their spouses or their dependent children with campaign cash, but they can reimburse themselves for certain expenditures that don’t involve a profit. Isett says he pays his wife the same rate she charges other clients.
That loophole is a stark reminder of how Texas lawmakers contort themselves and bend the rules when it comes to ethical issues. Legislators can hire adult children, but not dependents; they can reimburse themselves and family businesses for expenses as long as there’s no profit; some paid rent to their wives for homes they owned until the practice was banned.
It is hard to blame Isett for trying to find ways around the ethics rules involving spouses and family members. An accountant and naval reservist, he was deployed overseas for seven months in 2006 and says he no longer has an accounting practice. His legislative pay is $600 a month.
Nonetheless, it is a problem because Isett is paying his wife money that lobbyists contributed to him. Lobbyists do not give money to lawmakers out of the goodness of their hearts. They give campaign donations because they expect something in return.
The Texas Supreme Court has a similar problem. Justices accept campaign contributions from lawyers and firms with cases before the court. Donations from high-priced attorneys and white-shoe law firms do not come without expectations.
Texas has long been plagued by allegations that justice and legislation are for sale. That’s because Supreme Court justices must run for election statewide and legislators are paid a pittance for their service - and both accept campaign contributions from those with issues before them.
Although Supreme Court justices earn $150,000, in most Supreme Court arguments they will be the lowest paid lawyers in the courtroom. Legislators, too, are asked to give up a lot for the privilege of serving in the House and Senate for $6,200 a year.
It’s immaterial whether Isett’s wife is being paid for a professional service, which is allowed, or a personal one, which isn’t. He and his family are benefiting from lobbyists who have a strong interest in securing his support for their clients. Isett is making an end run around the intent of the law, which is to limit the lobby’s influence.
If the best minds in Texas were to devise a government that works for the interests of the state and its people, it wouldn’t look anything like what Texas has today. It would pay judges and lawmakers a decent wage and ban or severely restrict the financial influence of wealthy individuals, lobbyists and special-interest groups.
As it has evolved, Texas government is beholden to the monied interests, and reforms come about only after scandal. It may be an overstatement to say Texas has the best government money can buy, but not much of one.