Ethics Reform on Agenda in Texas

Capital sees need to limit lobby spending as public confidence in government dwindles

IN the past two years, reports from the Texas capitol of misuse of campaign funds and excessive lobbyist spending have made clear the need for ethics reform. ``There's a crisis in public confidence in government,'' says Paul Hobby, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

In 1989, an Austin newspaper reported several lawmakers used campaign funds on houses, airplanes, cars, and their private businesses.

A millionaire businessman handed out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor during hearings on worker's compensation reform.

Lobbyists reported spending close to $2 million during the 1989 regular session on meals, trips, and entertainment for legislators.

And, last month, a Travis County grand-jury investigation of the speaker of the House revealed that he had taken a lavish vacation to Mexico as the guest of a San Antonio law firm. At the same time, legislation damaging to that firm's business died in a House subcommittee.

Tightening Texas Laws

To help ease the confidence crisis, new Gov. Ann Richards (D) has put ethics reform at the top of her agenda. She and her special counsel on ethics, former US Rep. Barbara Jordan, are expected to testify this week before the Senate subcommittee charged with crafting a reform bill.

The present draft of the bill would significantly tighten Texas' lax campaign spending and lobby regulation laws.

But capitol insiders say any move to limit lobby spending will not sit well with lawmakers. Texas legislators - who are meant to be a part-time citizen's legislature, convening only five months every two years - are paid $7,200 a year.

At that rate, many say they cannot afford to be legislators without lobby-paid trips and meals, in spite of how it looks.

``It's a difficult area,'' Mr. Hobby says. ``A lot of ethics legislation has nothing to do with personal integrity. It has everything to do with the appearance of impropriety.''

Even if it cannot be proven that lobby spending does influence legislation, the public believes it does, says John Hannah, a former US attorney and now Ms. Richard's secretary of state.

``The perception is awful,'' he says. If ``the amount of money spent on `building relationships,' as they call it ... wasn't having some effect, then I don't think they would have spent $2 million last year.''

For this reason, Richards is leaning more toward prohibition of lobby spending, rather than disclosure, Mr. Hannah says.

``There's an argument made [that public disclosure will] substantially decrease spending anyway,'' he says. ``But after a certain amount of `civility spending,' golf or a meal, you ought to just limit it every year to a certain amount they can spend on a particular member.''

But Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a Texas political journal, says full disclosure, not prohibition, is the only way to prevent further abuses. ``We have the best legal minds in the state of Austin,'' he says. ``You give them half an hour, they can tell you how to get around [any limits].''

Part of the crisis in confidence is the public's misperception that the lobbies serve only a few special interests, while in fact they represent ``organized interests,'' Mr. Kronberg says.

Rather than curbing the lobbies' behavior, Kronberg would like to see more lobbyists. ``Make the system as open as possible, give everyone access,'' he says. ``A healthy lobby is essential to the modern democratic process.''

Full disclosure will allow the voter to make the ultimate decision on what is or is not proper, he says.

Public Frustration

The focus on ethics is a symptom of a greater public disappointment in government, says Max Sherman, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and a former state senator.

``The reason [the public is] even willing to entertain those thoughts of impropriety is that they're frustrated we spend all this money having a legislature that meets for six months and when they get through, [citizens] don't perceive anything has really happened,'' Mr. Sherman says. ``Therefore their frustration ... is much deeper.''

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