When the Texas Senate unveiled its base budget proposal Tuesday, eyebrows raised when prominent conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan was among the first to notice that the two-year spending plan cut total funding to the Texas Ethics Commission by more than a third.
In a post on his website, the Empower Texans president — who currently is fighting an ethics commission fine in court — listed the nearly 37 percent funding cut as one of five commendable, “stand out” attributes of the budget crafted by state Sen. Jane Nelson, the Republican from Flower Mound who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. (The others included zeroing out funding for both the Texas Racing Commission and the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s office, which — like the ethics commission — investigates state officials).
“Nelson’s budget is the first step in making good on promises made by Republicans in the 2014 election cycle,” Sullivan wrote.
As Nelson’s office explained Tuesday, the funding cut to the ethics commission is attributable to a one-time, $3.5 million allocation made in 2013 for a new and improved electronic system that was not restored. The House base budget proposal — released Jan. 15 — mostly maintains that amount, however, reducing total funding to the ethics commission by less than 4 percent.
Asked about the funding difference on Wednesday, Nelson said she was mad about insinuations that she wants to harm the ethics commission, and emphasized the money was temporary.
“I am ticked off at the spin that’s being put on this. The money that they’re not getting was one-time funding,” she said. “It never ever crossed my mind to do anything to the ethics commission.”
“We’ve got enough conflict on real issues,” she continued. “I don’t want conflict to be there on issues that (are) not a conflict… You know, I was reading some of the blogs last night and it was — no, that’s not what we did.”
Asked why the House decided to mostly keep the one-time funding, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus said that after the e-filing project concluded the commission “demonstrated other needs — including enhancements to the e-filing system — that directly relate to administering and enforcing the state’s ethics laws.”
“The House budget allows the Ethics Commission to continue to fulfill its very important role in the legislative process and in our democracy,” Jason Embry said in a statement.
Last August, the commission requested funding “for items beyond initial design” of a new and improved system for filing campaign finance reports and lobby and personal financial statements, including $150,000 to create a library of online training videos showing how to use the system, $175,000 to “fix any code defects” and $500,000 to add “functional enhancements” to the system that “will benefit the public and persons who use the system to file reports.” The system — expected to be a vast improvement over the current system — is supposed to come online this year and includes a mobile app.
It will “result in more accurate information for the public,” according to the commission, and also will “contain comprehensive management tools, including a robust database that will allow the commission to verify the completeness and accuracy of disclosure information.”
Asked what will happen if the agency does not receive those funds, Executive Director Natalia Luna Ashley said “At the end of the day, the Texas Ethics Commission will serve the public the very best way that it can with the resources that it’s given.”
“The budget process – it’s that, it’s a process, and we’re at the beginning stages of it,” she noted.