The Sunset Commission members—five House members and five senators—generally supported changes suggested in the report, but they were particularly sympathetic to the worry that leaving one little line on a form blank can suddenly get a candidate branded as a scofflaw.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the Sunset chairman, worried that making ethics complaints totally public during the height of the campaign season could leave members open to baseless attacks.
“It’s a complex issue because there’s a right to free speech,” Bonnen said, but we must not forget a candidate’s right avoid getting smeared.
“Sometimes you can endanger some people by making some things so public,” agreed Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the commission’s vice chair.
While the Sunset commissioners debated the merits of throwing their books wide open, a succession of citizens’ groups made the case for giving the Ethics Commission room to get much, much tougher on enforcing its rules.
Fred Lewis of the Texans Together Education Fund said there’s a basic structural problem with the Ethics Commission, something more serious than what software they use or how they display reports: mounting any investigation requires approval from six out of eight politically appointed board members.
“Frankly the problems we hear today are exactly the same problems that we heard in 2003,” Lewis said, referring to the Ethics Commission’s last bout with Sunset. “There is no civil enforcement agency that looks like or functions like the Ethics Commission, and the reason it doesn’t function is that it’s structurally incapable of functioning. It’s not that it lacks the power; it’s structurally incapable.”
Just one more reason Texas’s politics and government is so screwed.