Lawmakers, in reversal, advance mandate tightening disclosures of personal income, contracts
Before telling legislators to plan on a special session starting July 18, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asserted that some priorities were fulfilled in the regular session that ended Memorial Day.
Abbott, hearkening to the January start of the 140-day session, said in his June 6 remarks: "At the beginning of the 85th legislative session, I declared four emergency items: first, reforming CPS (Child Protective Services) and our foster care system to keep our children safe; second, banning sanctuary cities to keep our communities safe; third, ethics reform, to reduce the perception of corruption; and fourth, calling for a convention of states to rein in an out-of-control federal government.
"All of these priorities were passed by the Legislature and are now law," Abbott said.
Proposals in three of those realms made it into law, we confirmed. But the Republican-dominated Legislature's endorsement of Abbott's call for a federal constitutional convention didn't require a change in law. The adopted Senate Joint Resolution 2 simply urges Congress to call a convention of the states "for the limited purpose of proposing one or more amendments to the Constitution to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and to limit the terms of office of federal officials and members of Congress."
Otherwise the governor's mention of ethics reform as a job done led us to check that declared progress using the Abbott-O-Meter, which is our method of tracking progress on promises Abbott made before he won for governor in 2014.
Ethics promises unfulfilled
Abbott entered 2017 with three ethics campaign promises, each one rated a Promise Broken.
That is, we previously spotted no progress on his campaign-trail calls to limit lawyer-legislators from making money from lawsuit referrals; eliminate loopholes enabling legislators to vote on legislation financially benefiting themselves; and require state elected officials to disclose more about personal sources of income including contracts.
Our search of measures that gained momentum during the 2017 session again revealed no progress on limiting lawyer-legislators from making money from lawsuit referrals or from voting on proposals financially benefiting themselves--so we're leaving each of those vows among Abbott's promises rated Broken.
Broadly, Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning group focused on political corruption and corporate abuses in the state, said in a May press release that lawmakers largely ignored Abbott's renewed designation of ethics reform as an emergency. That release specifies seven zones of ethics-legislation failure.
Progress on financial disclosure?
Then again, lawmakers acted affirmatively on Abbott's vow to improve disclosures of personal income.
Abbott said in his Jan. 31 State of the State address: "It is time to let Texans know if elected officials have government contracts paid for by the taxpayers. Voters deserve to know if lawmakers are working for themselves or the people that elected them."
And on June 6, Abbott signed into law House Bill 501, authored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, which steps up what public officials must report, as of Jan. 8, 2019, in longstanding annual personal financial disclosure statements--which seems potentially in keeping with Abbott's November 2013 campaign proposal that "all state elected officials be required to disclose more about their sources of income and to disclose any contracts they, or their family members, have with state agencies or local government bodies."
The new law requires officials to reveal any ownership stakes of 5 percent or more in any business entity, down from 50 percent previously. The law also imposes dollar-amount thresholds for contracts that an official must disclose and it stipulates any contract with a government body or subcontractor in which the official and/or his or her immediate family members have a combined stake of at least 50 percent. It also newly requires legislators providing bond counsel services to reveal the relevant government entities and to report roughly how much was paid to the individual and her or his firm.
By phone, Carol Birch, a lawyer in the Texas office of Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that calls itself the "countervailing force to corporate power," said that while other ethics ideas lost momentum during the 2017 session, the adopted financial disclosure mandates were a win for people seeking sunlight on officeholders' holdings.
Also by phone, Capriglione said: "Our goal was to make sure that all contracts of any elected or public official, including the governor's appointees, would have to be disclosed in the personal financial statements." He noted that in 2015, Abbott and lawmakers supported his measure passed into law leading the Texas Ethics Commission to list holders of government contracts. (Next, Capriglione said, he'd like to put in motion independent audits of candidate campaign contribution and expenditure reports.)
We are revising our rating of this Abbott vow to PROMISE KEPT.
Promise Kept — The original promise is mostly or completely fulfilled.
EDITORS' NOTE, June 9, 2017: We posted the update below on July 2, 2015. It's still here for archival purposes.
Stumping for governor in November 2013, Greg Abbott said in a Corpus Christi speech that elected officials needed to reveal more about themselves and their campaigns.
"I'm proposing that all state elected officials be required to disclose more about their sources of income and to disclose any contracts they, or their family members, have with state agencies or local government bodies," he said.
In this Abbott-O-Meter update, we're gauging whether the 2015 Legislature revised state law to require elected officials to disclose more about income sources and contracts they, or family, have with state agencies or local government bodies.
At the start of the 2015 legislative session, Abbott declared ethics reform an emergency priority. After the session, though, he ultimately vetoed measures sent him by lawmakers including provisions for officials to disclose more about family sources of income.
House Bill 3511, authored by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, was amended by the Texas Senate to limit what state candidates and elected officials have to disclose on personal financial statements already required to be filed with the state. As amended at the suggestion of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the proposal softened existing law by stating financial statements only had to account for the financial activity of the individual's spouse and dependent children if the elected official controlled the activity for the year--inserting what an Austin American-Statesman news story called a "spousal loophole."
In his veto message, Abbott said the measure "weakens the ethics laws governing officeholder financial disclosures. I cannot allow that."
Abbott also vetoed a broader plan, HB 3736, also authored by Davis, that would have required any governing officer or member of a state agency's governing board to disclose in writing any contract, subcontract or paid relationship with a public entity. That plan also included the "spousal loophole" provision though Abbott wasn't specific in his veto message why he rejected it.
By telephone, Carol Birch, a lawyer in the Texas office of Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that calls itself the "countervailing force to corporate power," said the initial conflict-of-interest language in HB 3736 was later softened with so many exceptions as to have almost no restrictive effect.
Abbott said generally: "At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for meaningful ethics reform. This legislation does not accomplish that goal. Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans' trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws."
After the session, too, Abbott's office distributed a document describing legislation that reached his desk reflective of his campaign vows, which were itemized in his campaign's Bicentennial Blueprint. By Abbott's reckoning, no measures stepping up financial disclosures made it to him.
Given these results, we're marking this an Abbott PROMISE BROKEN.
Promise Broken – The promise has not been fulfilled. This could occur because of inaction by the executive or lack of support from the legislative branch or other group that was critical for the promise to be fulfilled. A Promise Broken rating does not necessarily mean that the executive failed to advocate for the policy.
Video of Gov. Greg Abbott's speech to reporters, Texas Capitol, June 6, 2017 (Facebook Live, Austin American-Statesman)
Prepared text, "Governor Abbott Delivers State of the State Address," Office of Gov. Greg Abbott, Jan. 31, 2017
Press release, "Lawmakers Rub Out Major Ethics Reforms," Texans for Public Justice and Public Citizen, Texas, May 26, 2017
Phone interview, Carol Birch, legislative counsel, Public Citizen, Texas office, June 7, 2017
Phone interview, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, June 8, 2017
Web page, "Greg Abbott Emergency Item: Ethics Reform," Greg Abbott campaign, undated (accessed June 24, 2015)
News story, "Greg Abbott looks to 2017 for ethics reform," American-Statesman, posted online June 22, 2015
News story, "Gubernatorial candidate Abbott calls for greater privacy protections, legalizing open carry," the Associated Press, Nov. 14, 2013
Document, "Blueprint Bills," Gov. Greg Abbott, June 2015 (sent by email from Matt Hirsch, communications director, Gov. Abbott's office, to Jonathan Tilove, chief political writer, American-Statesman, June 18, 2015)
Telephone interview, Carol Birch, legislative counsel, Texas office, Public Citizen, Austin, June 29, 2015