The Texas Ethics Commission Is Surprisingly Nonpartisan. What Can This Group Teach the Rest of Us?

The "Texas Ethics Commission" is not an oxymoron, just an idiosyncrasy.It's composed of an even number of people — unheard of in government since there's no one to break a tie. Even more remarkably, it's constitutionally mandated to include an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, seemingly the icing on the cake for chronic stalemates.But this apparently unworkable body works quite well. Most every vote of the eight-member board is unanimous and consistently nonpartisan, as the Texas Legislature hoped the commission would be when lawmakers designed it.Does the board have a secret sauce that could help the rest of the country during one of the most partisan periods in our history?Like most ethics legislation, the Texas Ethics Commission was created in 1991 due to a crisis of public confidence.Two years earlier, during consideration of a bill to reform worker's compensation, East Texas chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim walked onto the Senate floor (you can't do that anymore) and passed out $10,000 personal checks — supposedly "campaign contributions" — to nine of the Senate's 31 members, two days before the Senate voted on the bill. The incident made all the newspapers (the '90s version of going viral) but was perfectly legal at the time. The Legislature changed the law: No contributions could be made during the session or inside the capitol. (One journalist suggested the opposite — requiring that contributions be made inside, in the middle of the Capitol rotunda, only during business hours, in the spirit of full transparency.)But there are two bedrock principles that the ethics commission cares most about defending:1. Campaign contributions cannot be used for personal expenses. Before 1983, it was legal to use campaign funds for family vacations, a child's college education or new kitchen cabinets. 2. All campaign contributions must be disclosed, which has been the law since 1973. Unlike 39 other states, however, there are no limits on campaign contributions for state officeholders and candidates. A $1 million contribution to your favorite candidate is OK, as long as it is disclosed. The public is left to decide if a candidate is beholden to a generous donor.The ethics commission oversees all of this. The governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, all House and Senate members, municipal and county officeholders, state and local judges, and all who run for those offices, are subject to its oversight. Lobbyists, too. And since Texas is large, so is the commission's workload.Last year, the Texas Ethics Commission received 110,000 electronically filed campaign reports from 34,000 filers, and 17,000 phone calls from politicians and lobbyists asking for legal advice and guidance in order to avoid problems. Another 10,000 people called needing tech support for online filings. During that same period, 383 sworn complaints against public officials or candidates were submitted. Of those, only 71 were pending at the end of the year (including some holdover cases from prior years). Most cases are resolved confidentially; others proceed to public hearings.Although the severest penalty imposed by the ethics commission is a fine up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, the commission's authority is challenged from time to time in court. Lawsuits often hinge upon claims that ethics statutes are unconstitutional due to free speech rights and are defended either by the attorney general or outside counsel. Texans care about the integrity of the legislative process. An October 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that Texas voters rank political corruption and leadership as the No. 1 problem in the country and the fourth biggest problem in Texas (after immigration, border security and health care).In creating the ethics commission 28 years ago, the Legislature sought "to ensure the public's confidence and trust in government." At a time when that trust is waning at every level, it's important to point out that despite high-profile policy disagreements in the past among the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, these three officeholders consistently agree when it comes to appointing eight ethics commission members who focus solely on holding all politicians accountable, no matter their political party persuasion. Virtually every time, the Texas Ethics Commission comes to a unanimous decision.Steve Wolens is chair of the Texas Ethics Commission, an attorney with McKool Smith in Dallas, and a former state representative. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

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