State lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the secrecy of a state agency that polices misconduct by Texas judges and seemed receptive to a proposal for more public disclosure and enforcement of ethics laws that govern legislators and other public officials.
The Sunset Advisory Commission did not formally vote on the recommended changes for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct or the Texas Ethics Commission. But panelists made it clear during a daylong public hearing at the Capitol that they are leaning toward reforms.
The 12-member commission, made up of five senators, five House members and two public members, periodically measures the performance of state agencies to determine whether they should continue operating or be merged or closed.
Texas Ethics Commission staff recommended strengthening the agency's enforcement abilities, reducing penalties for minor paperwork mistakes and making more disclosure documents available to the public online.
Sunset commission chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, at several points seemed to support many of the proposed changes, which were endorsed by a parade of government-watchdog advocates and citizens.
If the panel eventually supports the staff recommendations, the ethics commission could end up with its first-ever enforcement division and greater power to subpoena records to investigate complaints.
"We feel it's in the public's interest to have an open situation where there's daylight all through the transactions we have," said Tom Ramsay, a retired lawmaker from East Texas who chairs the ethics commission.
Even so, changing ethics laws at the Capitol has been difficult in the past. The commission was created two decades ago after a legislative influence-peddling scandal. No matter how much support reforms might seem to have at a meeting, approval can be derailed after lawmakers ponder whether they really want to give an agency more power to bust them for violations.
Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, questioned whether the changes might be misperceived by the public.
"Some of us are concerned that the watchdog groups are ... going to holler that we're watering down the ethics rules," he said.
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Ethics, Judicial Conduct Agencies Get Lawmakers' Scrutiny
Watch the Sunset Advisory Commission Hearing