Ethics reform gusher eruptsLawmakers trying again to limit campaign donations and rein in lobbyists
By MATT STILES
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
April 13, 2009
AUSTIN — State lawmakers are looking at dozens of ethics and campaign-finance reforms to make them more accountable to taxpayers, including lobbying restrictions and better disclosure of their personal finances.
“We haven’t had the level of comprehensive ethics reform that we need,” said State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who filed a bill requiring that lawmakers’ personal financial information be posted online. “There’s just a general resistance to it.”
In the last session, for example, at least 105 bills related to general ethics, lobbying or campaign-finance were filed. Only nineteen became law.
This session, members of the House and Senate again are considering more than 100 bills.
Among them are bills that would places caps on individual campaign donations to candidates, prohibit former lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists and prevent campaign payments to relatives.
Another bill, filed by Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, would make lawmakers who run afoul of the ethics rules pay fines to the Texas Ethics Commission with personal funds, rather than with campaign donations.
“It makes a bigger impression on you if you write your own check rather than out of campaign dollars,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to fine me $500, or $50,000, and I can just go down the hall, raise it and pay it.”
Geren said some of his colleagues strongly objected to his bill. Among the other bills that could face challenges is a measure that would explicitly prohibit any payments of campaign funds to relatives.
The bill, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is a reaction to recent ethics findings against lawmakers who, for example, hired their wives as campaign bookkeepers.
“We’re trying to make sure that campaign contributions are used in furtherance of another cause, and that it’s not a slush fund to pay members of your family,” she said.
Another bill would restrict the most prolific donors from giving more than $100,000 in total to all candidates during an election cycle.
Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, for example, has donated more than $2.1 million to elected officials from both parties since January 2008, according to campaign finance reports.
Bills affecting judges
Not all ethics and campaign-finance bills, however, would directly affect the lawmakers passing them.
One, filed by Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would set up a state financing system for judicial candidates. Currently, elected judges must solicit campaign donations to run their campaigns, which means sometimes taking money from lawyers and business interests who appear in their courts.
Andy Wilson, in the Texas office of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the bill would increase confidence in the courts.
“It lets the public know that judges are ruling according to the law, and that their opinions are above reproach,” he said.
Wilson, whose group also is advocating for a nonpartisan commission to tackle what’s expected to be the contentious process of re-drawing elected officials’ districts after the next census, is under no illusions that many reforms will become law.
“There has generally been an uphill battle for any sort of lobbying, ethics or campaign finance reform,” he said.