Senate Debates Ethics, Picks Apart Major Part of Gov. Abbott’s Agenda

Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas
Sen. Don Huffines approaches Peak Dallas

The Senate should eat its spinach, declared Gov. Greg Abbott, the Legislature’s kind-hearted but distant paterfamilias. Among the moderate and nutritious items he laid out as priorities for his first legislative session as governor, one would be good for the whole family: ethics reform.

Did you know that legislators do not much like being told how they can and cannot make money? On Tuesday, one of the Legislature’s signature ethics bills, Senate Bill 19, stepped on to the Senate floor a ghost of its former self, having been pilloried in committee. But once debate began, it was overhauled against the author’s wishes. Greatly strengthened in some ways and weakened in others, it eventually passed by a unanimous vote.

But could the debate—full of weird and acrimonious invective between senators, and involving the passage of a large number of amendments, including one which mandates drug testing for those who hope to become elected officials—threaten the bill’s future?

SB 19’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), called his bill the “most significant ethics reform package of a generation” on Tuesday, as if it had already passed. His fellow senators seemed more doubtful. They made significant changes to Taylor’s bill, which seeks to make the ways lawmakers make money more transparent and to prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists when they leave public service.

Their efforts to tweak the bill culminated in an unusual last-minute gutting of a key provision of Taylor’s bill against his wishes, making the events of Tuesday one of the stranger Senate floor debates of the session.

Abbott had wanted any ethics reform package to prohibit legislators and other elected state officials who practice law from earning referral fees—payments for referring a case to another lawyer. Taylor presented the provision as an urgent part of his ethics overhaul, prompted by the case of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was recently arrested and charged with making millions of dollars in a kickback scheme utilizing referral fees to mask what amounted to bribes, among other improprieties. “Referral fees are ripe for corruption,” Taylor said.

But several senators, lawyers themselves, opposed this provision—asking why other professions that deal with referral fees, such as realtors, weren’t included in the bill.

“I don’t think you know the full impact that this bill has on practicing [lawyers who are] legislators,” state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said. “You’re putting most practicing lawyers out of business.”

And state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a towering 43-year-veteran of the lege who personifies old-school wheeler-dealer politics as well as anybody currently in office, found himself aghast that Taylor would cast aspersions on state legislators’ keen ethical senses. When state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment to prevent elected officials from hiring each other—ultimately killed, 6 to 25—Whitmire erupted at both Huffines and Taylor.

The whole bill was borne out of petty political grievances, Whitmire said, charging that Taylor still wanted to give former state Sen. Wendy Davis grief after last year’s election. And Huffines’ amendment seemed tailored to the case of his one-time primary opponent, former state Sen. John Carona, whose company once counted state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on the payroll.

Why would Taylor and Huffines have a vendetta against two lawmakers who are well retired from the lege? Huffines seemed mystified by this assertion. When Whitmire suggested he felt he had a “score to settle,” Huffines replied: “The score was settled when I won.”

But Whitmire was angrier at the aspersions cast on the Senate as a whole. “I think you’ve done a horrible disservice to this outstanding body,” Whitmire said, speaking of the way in which Taylor laid out the bill. Wasn’t he implying, with his attempt to create new ethical guidelines for elected officials, that “we are all crooks?”

“Would you put a face on this for all of us?” Whitmire asked. If Taylor was aware of wrongdoing, “you need to name us.” And then, he added, “run over to the DA’s office.” Otherwise, he said, any suggestion of impropriety at the lege was, in effect, “incriminating outstanding, honest people.”

But though Whitmire felt Taylor’s bill and Huffines’ amendment were classless, he found himself physically “sick to my stomach” thanks to Taylor’s linkage of the Empire State with the Lone Star State. It was highly inappropriate, he said, to put Texas legislators in the same league as “the slime of the New York Legislature.”

After a long late-afternoon delay, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) came up with a fix for the debate over lawyer referrals. Although the Texas Government Code already requires referrals to be reported on personal financial statements, she said, “that wasn’t routinely being done.” Her amendment will allow elected officials who are lawyers to continue accepting referral fees, but they will have to report those fees and provide details of the associated court cases.

But remarkably, the compromise wasn’t accepted by Taylor, who felt it was a critical part of his bill and moved to table it. That’s commonplace in the House, but almost never done in the Senate. Even more unusual—Taylor convincingly lost the motion to table, and was forced to swallow Huffman’s provision. Senate leadership, with both Democrats and Republicans on board, effectively railroaded Taylor.

Other successful amendments to the bill will require candidates to disclose the full total of their income from whatever source, including pensions and retirement plans, and to post their personal financial statements online.

And state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) took transparency to the next level with his amendment that would require state elected officials to take a drug test when they file for office and post the results of those tests online. The tests carry no penalty, so officials posting positive drug tests would only incur the wrath of public scrutiny.

The Senate passed the drug-test amendment, but not without some eye rolling. In response to Lucio’s amendment, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) suggested he should propose that elected officials also take an IQ test—and maybe test for alcohol abuse as well. Ultimately, mandatory drug tests for elected state officials are probably not even legal. In the 1997 case of Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court found that mandatory drug tests of elected officials are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment.

All in all, Tuesday’s debate was reminiscent of another Senate tango that took place a little over two years ago. Carona, the former Dallas senator who was replaced by Huffines, found himself trying to wrangle a huge payday lending regulatory effort through the upper chamber. It came to the Senate weak, the product of lengthy negotiations between reformers and the industry—but a miracle happened. Amendments kept getting added to the bill, including several by liberals like Davis and Ellis, strengthening it and its provisions.

But Carona knew what was happening. The bill was tanking. It had become so top-heavy, and so strong against the industry, that it was effectively being killed on the floor, with little chance of future passage. He began acquiescing to the amendments, defeated. He told the chamber: “I just want to go home and feed my cat.”

Taylor seemed to be in a similar mood Tuesday. SB 19 is now an ungainly collection of weak and strong provisions—a mess that House members will have to work to untangle, if they pass it at all. The Senate, apparently amending out of spite, even passed a special amendment to prevent legislators for being paid to serve on bank boards. (Taylor serves on a bank board.)

Is SB 19 on the road to passage? Maybe. Will it be anything close to what the governor wanted when he called for ethics reform? No, almost certainly not. Taylor, Patrick and Abbott insisted they were thrilled with the bill, but one has to wonder how Taylor is feeling about his education in Senate decorum. Maybe he should get a cat.

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Published at 3:48 pm CST