Loophole sinks ethics reforms vetoed by Texas Gov. Abbott

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott dealt a final blow Saturday to his own pledges to tighten Texas’ loose ethics rules, vetoing two reform bills poisoned by a last-minute rider that would have given lawmakers cover to hide their spouses’ financial dealings.

The vetoes, which were among 42 bills rejected by the new governor, capped Abbott’s inability in his first year to strengthen ethics laws as promised shortly after taking office in January. He even named it one of five legislative priorities, alongside upgrades to border security and Texas pre-K.

Abbott delivered on his other so-called emergency items, but when it came to state lawmakers putting new rules on themselves, they fought for months over allowing more transparency about their personal wealth and curbing conflicts of interests.

Although the vetoed bills would have tightened some disclosure rules, even ethics watchdosg considered what became known as the “spousal loophole” amendment far too toxic.

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“Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans’ trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws,” Abbott said in a statement. “Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session — the right way. Texans deserve better.”

The amendment would have shielded lawmakers from disclosing how their spouses make money. It was stuck into the bill by Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, a former judge, whose husband has myriad business interests.

Another comprehensive ethics bills sank earlier this session over whether to politically active nonprofit should have to disclose their donors, in what is known as dark money.

Although critics have long denounced Texas’ ethics laws as soft, Abbott was forced to confront issues of transparency and oversight early when a $110 billion no-bid state contracting scandal erupted shortly after he was elected in November.

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Abbott has now cleared his desk of thousands of bills to sign into law or reject. He also vetoed softer penalties for prostitution and another that would have given state employees more flexibility to work from home. It’s the most bills vetoed since former Gov. Rick Perry rejected 56 bills in 2007, but far short of the 83 bills Perry spiked during his first year on the job, which helped set his defiant tone.

Abbott said he also eliminated $300 million from the Texas budget in line-item vetoes, though that amounts to only a mere fraction of a $209 billion two-year budget.