DALLAS MORNING NEWS COMMENTARY: A Path Forward on Ethics Reform
Corrupt politicians convicted of felony abuse of office should not collect taxpayer-funded pensions. Any Texan would say this is common sense, right? So much so that during the 2015 legislative session this proposed law passed both the Senate and House unanimously. But did it become law? No. Despite gaining unanimous support in both chambers, this important piece of ethics reform never made it to the governor’s desk. It is both appalling and baffling that criminal officials can still collect government benefits and a pension paid for by the hard-earned tax dollars of those same people they betrayed. That is the legacy of the 2015 legislative session as it related to ethics reform. In a word: pathetic.
Our democracy relies upon the belief that elected officials serve the people, and that after the dust settles from important public policy debates, people have the confidence to know, in no uncertain terms, that elected officials work for them no matter their party or position. If this trust erodes, then everything else the Legislature does suffers.
An unfortunate observation from my time in Austin is when the will of the people runs counter to the desires of entrenched politicians and insider lobbyists, the illusion of action often trumps the pursuit of meaningful solutions. Ethics reform represents one of the most glaring examples of this reality. While backroom scheming may work for a while, when the curtain gets pulled back, unveiling the sham, only a debilitating lack of trust remains (see Washington, D.C.). These maneuvers usually manifest themselves in one of a few ways:
· The “Bill in Name Only”: Too often politicians pass bills with lofty titles to brag about on campaign literature but buried inside lie more loopholes and carve-outs than a secondhand store’s return policy, rendering the legislation effectively useless.
· The “Throwing the Kitchen Sink”: Requiring more parliamentary nuance, this method loads up a bill with a host of ridiculous, irrelevant and often times contentious measures so the underlying bill goes down under the crushing weight of controversy.
· The “Backroom Houdini”: When the first two tactics fail and a proposal earns enough public support to advance to the governor’s desk only to have provisions mysteriously go missing behind closed doors.
So here ethics reform lingers, stuck between an innocuous title, a barrage of bizarre stunts, and mystifying sleight of hand. We can break this cycle.
As a Marine Corps reconnaissance officer, I know any mission’s success is predicated on understanding the terrain. While there is no sugar-coating last session’s ethics reform failures, they did offer one glimmer for the upcoming 2017 session: Votes were cast and lawmakers established a record.
Recognizing the legislative vulnerability of an ethics reform omnibus bill, last session’s votes offer a road map to navigate the turbulent topic. By patching together measures that gained overwhelming support, but did not make it through the full process, the 85th Legislature can do the people’s work without the unnecessary theatrics.
These are not insignificant measures either: They include transparency measures such as disclosing government contracts, terminating conflicts of interest by shining a light on the relationship between lobbyists and elected officials, and anti-corruption measures like the aforementioned revocation of pensions from corrupt and criminal politicians.
This is not to say the ethics reform framework I am proposing is all we need. Of course it is not. Elected officials must always strive to rise above even the appearance of impropriety or self-service, and, more important, prove so through their actions. As such, I will be filing my own separate ethics bills where I think Texas needs additional reform and encouraging my colleagues to do the same. But policy proposals are disingenuous if they are used to sabotage substantive ethics reform where wide agreement within the Legislature already exists.
Whether it be House, Senate, Republican, Democrat, urban, rural, newly elected or veteran members, every officeholder should recognize the enormity of the trust granted to us by the people to represent their families in government. I look forward to working with my colleagues on a straightforward path to ethics reform, one that is brightly lit and in full public view. But to get there we must have the courage to cast public votes rather than duplicitously killing common-sense ethics reforms with underhanded political ploys.
From the disillusionment left by last session’s ethics reform failures, the upcoming 85th Legislature presents an opportunity to honor the promise every elected official makes when they place their name on the ballot: that we serve our constituents. Period.
A seventh-generation Texan, local small businessman and decorated Marine Corps officer, Van Taylor serves the majority of Collin County and a portion of Dallas County in the Texas Senate, where he is widely recognized as a conservative leader. Taylor serves as vice chairman of both the Nominations Committee and the Sunset Advisory Commission. He is also as a member of the Education, Health and Human Services and Transportation Committees as well as the interim Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief. Van and his wife, Anne, married after his return from Iraq, are the proud parents of three young girls. Van and his family reside in Plano near the land his great-grandfather farmed during the Great Depression.