Ethics Reform Buffeted by GOP Infighting

State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)
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State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 8:00 am CST
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