Editorial: Legislature needs ethics makeover
Monday, January 5, 2009
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Joe Straus, expected to become the Texas House's new reform-minded speaker, undoubtedly has to-do issues being shoved under his nose this very moment. But none would show more that he intends to change House culture than leading an effort to close the Legislature's revolving door.
A team of Dallas Morning News reporters are detailing in the newspaper's "State of Neglect" series the ease with which legislators move from making laws to lobbying former colleagues. And, oh, by the way, making serious bucks once they leave the Capitol and return as lobbyists.
A case in point is the lobbying role former GOP Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth played in getting contracts lined up for private companies – after she spearheaded the 2003 Legislature's decision to let private companies manage various parts of the state's health services.
We have no doubt the devoted conservative would prefer that the private sector manage services, even if she didn't make a penny from it. Nor are we saying that legislators should stop outsourcing contracts to private companies. We'd rather that watchdog conservatives like GOP Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound redouble their efforts to make sure privatization schemes aren't run by people who don't tend to Texans' needs.
But there is a problem when a former legislator like Wohlgemuth starts lobbying on behalf of others to get contracts. It makes Austin look like nothing but a network of backscratchers helping one another make money on the backs of taxpayers.
This is where Straus could make a difference as speaker. He should push for an ethics bill that:
•Requires legislators to wait two years before returning as lobbyists. A two-year wait is necessary because the Legislature meets in regular session every other year. As it stands today, a legislator can quit one day and start lobbying former colleagues without sitting out even one session.
•Requires lobbyists to be more explicit about their connections. Lobbyist disclosure forms should include any years of service in the Legislature, the name of their firm and the specific legislation they seek to influence.
Straus understandably has many people trying to get his ear. Changing this critical piece of the Legislature's culture would assure Texans they have the speaker's attention.