Helping Themselves

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Gary Elkins owns 12 Texas payday loan stores (Big City Finance! Freeway Finance! Cash Station!). He also happens to be a Republican state representative from Houston. The two jobs aren’t mutually exclusive. His role this session in helping quash legislation that might have regulated the loathsome payday-loan industry perfectly illustrates the conflict-of interest-problem at the Texas Legislature.

Elkins stayed out of negotiations on the payday loan bills for almost five months, citing his direct financial interest in the outcome. But that turned out to be a cynical bluff. When two modest reform bills came to the House floor, Elkins seemingly transformed from lawmaker into lobbyist. As we report on page 21 of this issue, not only did Elkins try to kill one of the bills, he also introduced an amendment that would have shut down certain types of payday lenders and increased his own personal market share.

Unfortunately, it’s not that surprising—or unusual. Texas is represented by citizen-legislators. At $7,200 per year in salary, all but the most wealthy members must have outside employment. That’s perfectly OK. As citizens, we want doctors providing expertise on health care, lawyers helping out with complex legal issues and educators crafting education policy. However, lawmakers are too often crossing the ethical line and abusing their public office for personal gain.

Another recent troubling example was the much-needed reform to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association—an insurer of last resort for coastal homeowners. The key lawmakers negotiating the bill make a living off TWIA-related lawsuits and insurance policy sales. Rep. Craig Eiland, a Galveston Democrat and vice-chair of the House Insurance Committee, has earned at least $620,000 from suits related to Hurricane Ike. Rep. Larry Taylor, a Republican from Friendswood, pulled in at least $300,000 from selling TWIA policies. Eiland and Taylor have worked on many insurance bills over the years, and we see nothing wrong with that. But in this instance, they were seemingly crafting legislation that would directly impact their own livelihoods. We couldn’t think of a clearer conflict of interest.

The Texas Constitution requires legislators to disclose “a personal or private interest in any measure or bill” to their colleagues and states they “shall not vote” on the matter. The provision is rarely, if ever, enforced. The Texas Ethics Commission must rediscover this small-but-critical section of the Constitution and enforce it. When they’re in the Capitol, legislators should work to benefit Texans, not themselves.