Thursday, May 17, 2007

Checks and Balances

Bill requiring gift details goes to Perry

Responding to public's outrage over recent rulings, House votes to close a loophole

May 17, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Is a wheelbarrow full of cash just a wheelbarrow?

Not when public officials are involved, the Texas House said in unison Wednesday.

The House, responding to public outrage over recent state disclosure rulings by the Texas Ethics Commission, voted unanimously to require public officials to more fully report the value of gifts they receive.

Public officials receiving a wheelbarrow full of cash would no longer satisfy state reporting requirements by disclosing receipt of a wheelbarrow. Lawmakers who receive a check would no longer satisfy reporting requirements by simply disclosing receipt of a check.

"This closes the loophole," the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, said.

The bill, which was authored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, now heads to the governor, having passed the Senate last month. It was written after the Ethics Commission last year ruled that Bill Ceverha, a trustee on the state employee's retirement board, satisfied state disclosure laws in 2005 when he reported the receipt of a $50,000 gift as a check.

Other bills

The disclosure legislation is one of several ethics bills winding their way through the Legislature. The Senate Committee on State Affairs unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would bar lawmakers from using their campaign funds to pay rent to relatives.

The bill, which unanimously passed the House earlier this month, was written by Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, who found herself the subject of unflattering media stories last year for diverting $1,700 in campaign funds each month to pay her husband rent on an Austin condo he listed as separate property.

She said she ceased the rent payments to her husband last fall when it became clear that the public had no appetite for the practice, which at least two other lawmakers acknowledged doing at the time. Then she decided to get proactive.

Her bill would close a loophole that allows public officials to rent property from spouses as long as the property belongs separately to the spouse and is not community property. Her bill would also bar lawmakers from renting or purchasing property from spouses or relatives.

'A step forward'

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that advocates for campaign finance reform, called this year's ethics bills "a step forward," but said they "just played around the edges and did not address the fundamental problems with Texas politics."

He lamented the demise of proposals that would have barred individuals from spending more than $100,000 in political races; established a two-year "cooling-off" period before lawmakers can become lobbyists, up from the current one year; and banned what he calls "phony issue ads" within 60 days of an election.

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