2011 Sunset Review of the Texas Ethics Commission

This post provides a little background for our Dec 10th meeting, whose speaker, Conor Kenny, will be telling us about the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC).

The TEC’s mission and performance are under review by the Sunset Commission, which is composed of legislators and public members, as required by the Texas Sunset Act.  The review is to determine “if the agency is still needed, and what improvements are needed to ensure that state funds are well spent.” The TEC is not subject to elimination, but the  Legislature’s decisions about how the TEC will operate in the future will be based on the Sunset Commission’s recommendations.

What are the Ethics Commission’s duties?

The only duties prescribed in the Texas Constitution are to recommend the salaries of legislators, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and to set the per diem of legislators and the Lieutenant Governor. The TEC’s other powers and duties are determined by the legislature.

The TEC’s statutory responsibilities are to administer and enforce our state’s laws concerning

  •  political contributions and expenditures, and political advertising
  •  lobbyist registration, reports, and activities
  •  personal financial disclosure of state officers and conduct of state officers and employees
  •  judges of statutory county courts or statutory probate courts who elect to file a financial statement with the Commission;
  • Conflict of Interest in Certain Transactions involving the Texas Facilities Commission
  • Conflict of Interest involving the Office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Who cares and why do they care?

  • Coffee Party Austin
  • League of Women Voters of Austin
  • Public Citizen
  • Sierra Club
  • Texans for Public Justice

Here are their major concerns:

  1. The TEC is not effective.  In the TEC’s most recent Self-Evaluation, it reported that in 2009 it received 274 complaints from the public but none were initiated by the TEC. In 2010, it received 374 complaints from the public and again, none were initiated by the TEC.  The TEC appears to be shirking its enforcement responsibilities.
  2. Currently TEC’s officers can pursue cases only with permission from its partisan appointee oversight Board. The TEC should be split into two separate divisions, one responsible for enforcement and not subject to interference by the Board, and the other responsible only for advice and regulation.
  3. The TEC appears to be designed to help candidates avoid compliance with existing statutes rather than to provide a service to assist an interested electorate. TEC should hire analysts to study filing and financial data to find carelessness, deceit, and honest confusion, and should use this analysis to improve performance.

Coffee Party Austin plans to follow the sunset review of the TEC in the hopes of strengthening campaign finance laws and increasing the TEC’s effectiveness in enforcing those laws.

About Hamilton Richards

He retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days he volunteers technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), Austin Rowing Club, and several friends.
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