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Key House leader plans new push for state ethics reform

 - “Dark money” sets stage for corruption scandal

State ethics reform will figure prominently in the 2017 legislative session as the leading Republican advocate for greater transparency in campaign donations lays the groundwork for bypassing powerful opponents of his proposal. Instead, he wants to take the question directly to the voters.

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, was stymied in his efforts last year to pass legislation preventing politically active nonprofit organizations from hiding the identities of their donors. Cook, chairman of the powerful House Committee on State Affairs, announced plans last week to advance a proposed constitutional amendment through the Legislature so voters could weigh in on an issue that has vexed lawmakers since 2013.

The advantage of doing so is that Governor Greg Abbott, who has voiced opposition to such a measure, doesn’t get an official say in proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution. The likelihood of the measure clearing the Senate where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – who rejected a similar measure last session – sets the agenda is not strong. Cook remains determined.

“If we don’t help give transparency to this issue,” Cook told the San Antonio Express-News, “there’ll be no reason for any candidate to do anything other than set up vehicles to allow them to receive money anonymously.”

Under current law, certain kinds of nonprofit groups can spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections of independent candidates for public office without revealing the names of donors who provided the money, hence the term “dark money.”

Such sums are rapidly increasing with each election cycle and Cook reportedly fears that the escalating number of groups engaging in the activity could lead to a major scandal.

Cook, who narrowly defeated a Tea Party challenger in the March 1 primary election, proposed last session that groups making independent expenditures of $25,000 or more should be required to disclose the names of donors who give $2,000 or more.

That provision poisoned the viability of a measure that already had been significantly watered down, despite the fact that Abbott had declared ethics reform an emergency item meriting priority consideration by lawmakers.

Questions? Contact TAB's Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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