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Texas Ethics Commission Bill Gets Initial House Approval

Veronica Zaragovia for KUT

State lawmakers had a lengthy debate on the House floor Monday when they took up, and passed, a Senate bill that would make changes to a key commission. One that determines the rules state officials must follow. 

The measure by State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would make changes to theTexas Ethics Commission, which provides rulemaking and oversight for state officials, like lawmakers, executives and judges, as well as lobbyists and state agency employees.

Attached to Senate Bill 219 were more than 30 amendments, most of them unrelated to the ethics bill.  Lawmakers often attach the amendments as a last-minute strategy to pass their pet projects that didn’t survive on their own.

"This particular session there was supposed to be a big emphasis on transparency and accountability and ethics reform," Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. "There were quite a few bills filed, few of them had a hearing and even fewer got out of committee and even fewer got out to the floor."

Rep. Howard filed amendments. One of them, which passed, would require lawmakers to disclose their personal financial statements online without their home address. 

StateRep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, also filed amendments. One was similar to a Senate bill he sponsored in the House – Senate Bill 346. It would require certain politically active nonprofits to provide the Ethics Commission with a list of all donors who contribute more than $1,000.

"Contrary to some of the stuff you've seen on Twitter and Facebook, it is constitutional for non-profits to disclose their contributors," Rep. Geren said.

Political nonprofits would also be required to disclosure expenditures that exceed $25,000.

One part of the amendment would require groups spending on a House speaker’s race to disclose certain contributions. State Rep. Van Taylor,R- Plano, said this would harm their freedom of speech and deter them from donating. State Rep. Mike Villareal, D- San Antonio, disagreed.

"How does that amendment harm their ability to communicate their public position?" Rep. Villareal asked.

"For all intensive purposes, it means 501c3s would not get involved in that," Rep. Taylor replied.

After roughly two hours of debate, the bill passed tentatively after a vote of 133 to 14.