The “revolving door” through which lawmakers become lobbyists has long been a fact of life in the Texas Capitol. For groups seeking to influence legislation, hiring a former lawmaker soon after they leave office — while they still maintain their network of contacts and influence — is desirable. Critics, though, question whether lawmakers should be able to cash in so quickly on lucrative deals to lobby immediately after their legislative service is done.
Legislation proposed during the 2015 session would've placed a two-session cooling-off period after lawmakers leave office before they can lobby for pay. Another bill would've mandated a two-year cooling-off period during which a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist could not make political contributions from an officeholder account.
But neither measure passed — nor did sweeping ethics overhaul legislation that might have made the Texas Legislature a more transparent place.
Updated: June 1, 2015
Gov. Greg Abbott declared ethics reform an emergency item in the 2015 session, and the idea of beefing up disclosures by lawmakers and lobbyists was a hot topic in the Capitol. But at the end of the day, watchdogs say Texas lawmakers actually went backward — passing legislation under the veil of ethics reform that actually requires them to disclose less. Indeed, the overhaul ethics reform bills that lawmakers in both chambers debated — measures that included greater disclosure of lobbyist wining and dining — died when no compromise could be reached.
There were a few minor wins: Democratic Rep. Chris Turner helped add an amendment to a bill requiring state officials to reveal pensions and "public benefits" on their annual disclosures. There will also be more sunlight on elected officials who profit from government contracts or certain public debt-financing deals. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, managed to overcome the anti-ethics inertia to pass a bill requiring governmental entities to provide to the Texas Ethics Commission a list of people who have a financial interest in their significant contracts.
But there were bigger steps backward. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, managed to tack on an amendment — in two different bills — that opens up a “spousal loophole” allowing politicians to shield details about their spouses' financial holdings. Huffman was also instrumental in passing a bill creating a unique carve-out for lawmakers accused of public corruption. If Abbott doesn't veto it, no longer will he or other state elected officials be required to face an investigation by local prosecutors in the county where the alleged corruption occurred. Instead, they will face an initial probe by the state police — whose budget the politicians oversee — and then prosecution and trial in the county where they maintain a homestead.
Updated: June 1, 2015
The public integrity unit, housed in the Travis Count district attorney’s office since its creation in the 1980s, investigates public corruption, among other areas. The unit has been a target for several Republican lawmakers, who feel that prosecutions out of the office have been politically motivated.
In 2013, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed state funding for the unit after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg declined to step down after a drunken driving arrest.
And during the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers looked to move the unit away from the Travis County DA’s office. There had been talk of moving the unit to the attorney general’s office. But legislators ultimately passed a bill that would direct public corruption complaints against elected officials and state employees to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Critics say it’s a conflict of interest for politicians to be investigated by an agency whose budget they control. But proponents say that state police are insulated by civil service protection against political pressure.
If an investigation leads to charges, elected officials would now be prosecuted in their home counties under the legislation, which is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Updated: May 31, 2015
The Texas Legislative Guide was designed and developed by Becca Aaronson, Emily Albracht, Daniel Craigmile, Annie Daniel, Ben Hasson and Ryan Murphy for The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that promotes civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.