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Give Texans tools they need to keep a watchful eye on Legislature

By Kirk Watson

We ask Texans to put a lot of trust in us and believe that we as legislators are acting in their best interest. But lately, we've done a sorry job of ensuring people can both trust — and verify.

Our state ethics and disclosure laws have, in some cases, been rendered meaningless. They are terribly outdated, and two recent decisions (here and here) by the Texas Supreme Court have carved some gaping loopholes in the Public Information Act, allowing basic information about government spending to be withheld from the very same taxpayers who are footing the bill.

These issues have undermined our fundamental principle that elected officials can be held accountable by voters armed with ample information. The 85th Legislature has the opportunity to fix both issues this session, and I'm optimistic we will.

Ethics

In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott declared ethics an emergency item and directed legislators to go fix it. While it was important to focus on this general issue, we couldn’t agree on what specific problem needed fixing, and ethics reform died that session.

We learned a lot from that experience and are pressing forward this session with Senate Bill 14, an omnibus bill by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, that wraps together proposals that we should all be able to agree on. SB 14 would prevent a corrupt politician from getting a pension after leaving office and assure disclosure of certain contracts, bond counsel relationships and legal referral fees.

I’m a co-author of SB 14, and included in the bill are two proposals from me that shine some light on the way lobbyists wine and dine legislators. The proposals would lower the spending threshold for when a lobbyist must report and require lobbyists to report even when they split the check.

Disclosing this basic information about the way lobbyists seek to influence policymaking would go a long way to preserving voters’ trust and confidence. To be clear, this doesn’t attack lobbyists; in fact, I think we would all agree that many lobbyists bring useful information and expertise to the legislative process. But like most policymaking activities, lobbying works best when the public isn’t kept in the dark. My proposals aim to honor our commitment to disclosure, preserve integrity in our conduct and foster increased respect in the process.


We must also ensure disclosure is useful to the public. And in the instance where multiple lobbyists can join together to split an expenditure, such as a restaurant tab, the disclosure fails to disclose much. My proposals allow that practice to continue, but they also require a detailed report to be filed if the total value of the benefit conferred is over a certain amount.

These reforms promote basic government transparency, which should be the goal of any ethics package. I applaud Sen. Taylor for recognizing this fact and including my ideas in SB 14, and I look forward to working with him to ensure they remain in the bill as it moves through the legislative process.

Open Records

The Public Information Act of 1973 empowered the people by ensuring they could see government records. The very first section of that law clearly stated that the public's right to know, in most cases, should prevail over other interests because information is key to accountability.

Two recent decisions from the Texas Supreme Court weakened that law by allowing governmental bodies and private entities that receive public funds to more easily conceal their dealings. Basic information that had been publicly available for 40 years, such as finalized public-private contracts, can now be withheld.

I believe it is our duty as legislators to ensure the people of Texas can track how government spends public money. I've teamed up with Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, to undo the damage that has been done by these court rulings.

By restoring the integrity of our ethics and open government laws, legislators will have taken serious steps toward ensuring Texans can keep an eye on what we in government are doing in the name of the people.

Kirk Watson is Democratic Texas State Senator from Austin.

This article originally appeared at TribTalk.

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