State legislators talk about ethics reform bill at Texas Tribune panel

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Former Austin mayor and State Rep. Kirk Watson speaks at a Texas Tribune Panel Tuesday morning. Watson discussed ethics and transparency with State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, and State Sen. Van Taylor.
Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Former Austin mayor and State Rep. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he is confident that a bipartisan ethics reform bill will pass this session during a Texas Tribune panel at the Austin Club on Tuesday morning.

“Last session it was a trainwreck and we learned from it,” Watson said.

Watson, along with State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, discussed ethics and transparency with Texas Tribune moderator Jay Root. 

With the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Taylor filed Senate Bill 14, the Ethics Reform and Anti-Corruption Act of 2017, to expose corrupt state legislators. The bill requires lobbyists to disclose money for “wining and dining” spent on candidates they are trying to coax and take away pensions for lawmakers convicted of felonies.

“I need to be able to come back to my constituents and explain to them what votes that I‘ve taken, what policies I’d like to push … as long as I’m (making) that publicly available,” Capriglione said.

Root asked the panelists why a bipartisan bill has taken so long ever since a similar bill died in the 2015 session. Watson said some lawmakers are afraid of publicly supporting such a bill that would expose others they know and support.

“There’s a lot of time for things to be done in the dark,” Watson said. “The vampires come out and kill off the good legislation where you might not even know what is happening, or why it’s happening.”

Root asked the legislators to address the “dark money” issue, where nonprofits do not disclose the donors that give them unlimited contributions to back certain candidates.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee that keeping donors secret is a form of anonymous speech protected by the First Amendment, and Root asked Taylor if he supports protecting the identities of donors.

“You say dark money, I say forced disclosure (and) anonymous speech,” Taylor said. “We have different perspectives on it, but I think what’s clear is it’s very controversial.”

SB 14 does not address dark money, and Root asked Taylor again if he supported requiring donors to be disclosed. Taylor defended himself saying he abides by the constitutional powers of the First Amendment.

“It’s unconstitutional to end anonymous speech,” Taylor said. “We would not have had the republic today without the Federalist Papers before anonymous political speech.”

Watson said he is a proponent of transparency with contributions from political action committees. 

“I really can’t wrap my head around why we wouldn’t want full disclosure,” Watson said.

Panelists also asked if President Donald Trump should have released his tax returns, and they all agreed Trump should have released them.

“You may have different rules and requirements for legitimate reasons,” Watson said. “But it also, I think, set a bad example for how you create additional transparency. Particularly if it’s done in such a way where it’s just a statement.”