A bipartisan group of legislators are pushing for big ethics reforms during this special session — but Governor Greg Abbott, who is using a special session loophole to raise campaign cash — is resisting the effort.
A loophole allows Texas lawmakers to seek contributions during the special session even if they’re considering bills that could affect those donors — a tactic that’s illegal any other time. Representative Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, held a press conference Wednesday requesting that Abbott add closing the loophole to his special-session agenda. In response, a spokesman for the governor accused the group of “showboating.”
When Abbott announced a special session in June, his office laid out a list of 20 priorities for Texas lawmakers to discuss. Included on that list were a ban on taxpayer funding for abortion providers and a crackdown on “mail-in ballot fraud.” The bathroom bill, which also made it onto that list, was simply labeled “privacy.”
On Wednesday, a group of lawmakers held a press conference to try to get ethics reform onto that agenda. “We are asking for one thing, and that is for Governor Abbott to add ethics reform to the special proclamation of the special session,” Representative Davis said at the press conference. The move, she said, would “strengthen [Texans’] faith in elected officials instead of diminish it.”
The rule allowing for special-session donations isn’t the only loophole the group wants to fix. Representative Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, also introduced a bill preventing people who have given a governor more than $2,500 from serving on his or her cabinet.
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, lashed out in a written statement, which was reportedly put out almost immediately after the press conference ended. “Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the Governor’s call,” Wittman said. “Their constituents deserve better."
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Governor Abbott has a special interest in both of these rules. An analysis by Texas Tribune found that Abbott has earned at least $8.6 million from his appointees since 2016, with almost 10 percent of them having contributed. A couple of those appointees — Texas A&M University System regent appointee Robert Albritton and Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Kelcy Warren — donated more than $700,000, according to the Tribune.
Abbott has also continued to fundraise during this special session, something that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Strauss, who are also Republicans, promised not to do.
In an effort to earn Abbott’s support, Representative Larson offered a compromise on his bill: He would raise the contribution limit to $5,000 and make sure it didn’t go into effect until 2022. Abbott spokesman John Wittman accused Larson of lying and being “an embarrassment.”
"Mr. Larson’s fabricated comments are an embarrassment for someone who claims to be a champion of ethics reform," he said. "His comments are a disservice to his constituents, and even more so to the appointees from his district who selflessly serve the state of Texas."