The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit dedicated to “…serv[ing]democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism,” recently released their report on ethics and transparency in state governments. Surprising no one, Texas received a D-.
This must be a particularly concerning failure to Governor Greg Abbott, who started his term with a speech to the Texas Legislature detailing the importance of a commitment to ethics reform, the Texas Tribune reported in its analysis of the CPI’s findings.
Abbott pointed to the trust between elected officials and the people of Texas as the most important bond for the state government, and proposed a commitment to ethics reform would help solidify that bond for the legislature. “But rejection of ethics reform,” he warned, “could weaken that bond and rightfully raise suspicions about who we truly serve — ourselves, or the people of Texas.”
The legislature’s inability to pass the most hard-hitting of Abbott’s proposed ethics reforms puts Abbott somewhere he most likely never expected to find himself: in a similar situation to former Governor Ann Richards.
As the Tribune points out, Texas is not new to ethical scandals. Just two years before Richards took office, a Texas poultry magnate was handing out checks for $10,000 on the Senate floor.
Richards came into office with a similar plan to Abbott – at least in one area of governance. Armed with a list of thirteen proposed ethics reforms, Richards was prepared to crack down on these indiscretions and create a more ethical and open government. Like Abbott, she came out with significantly fewer solutions than she had hoped, and an ethics agency with little to no power for enforcement.
The impact of this failure to give the agency teeth continues to be felt today. As the Texas Tribune reports, the statutory restrictions on the agency most recently kept them from collecting a $10,000 fine from Michael Quinn Sullivan, one of the most vocal forces behind the Texas GOP’s shift to Tea Party fervor.
Though we have moved past the days of poultry kings handing out thousands of dollars to sitting Senators on the Senate floor, the unlimited ability of individuals with means to influence state politics through our campaign contribution laws has resulted in what many call “pay to play” politics.
Craig McDonald, from Texans for Public Justice, explained: “a small minority of citizens control a huge amount of the political money in the state.”
During his record-breaking time in office, former Governor Rick Perry was able to appoint more than 5,000 individuals. In 2014, drawing on data from Texans for Public Justice, the Austin American Statesmen reported that 21% of the $109.8 million Perry received during his thirteen year tenure came from 1,187 of his appointees and their spouses – to the tune of almost $23 million.
Of the thirteen categories surveyed in the recent report, Texas only received an A in one area: the state budget process. The state received an F in eight areas, including accountability in each branch of state government, political financing, electoral oversight, lobbying disclosure, and public access to information – in which category Texas ranks 48th in the nation.
If the engagement of voters in recent years is any indication, perhaps Abbott, in this instance, was on to something. What encouragement is there for voters to get to the polls if accountability in every branch of government ranks among the worst in the nation? Perhaps, as asserted by some in the analysis from the Texas Tribune, the leadership in Texas is more interested in lip service than genuine ethics reform. Judging by the CPI’s report, many of them might have quite a bit to lose.