Image: Left to right: State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe and the Author of the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act, and State Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe and Senate Sponsor of the legislation, celebrate passage of the bill on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the stairwell outside of the House of Representatives Gallery on the Third Floor of the Capitol of the Great State of Texas in Austin.
Lambright Act includes provision to restrain cities and counties’ use of taxpayer-funded lobbying
Austin and Conroe, May 27 – In a stunning victory, which had teetered on the brink of disaster, on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at approximately 7:15 p.m., the Texas House of Representatives voted in favor of final passage of the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act (the “Lambright Act”), legislation with major statewide implications, on a 116 to 11 vote. The Conference Committee Report of the major legislation gained passage in the Texas Senate late Sunday afternoon.
JD Lambright was Montgomery County’s beloved County Attorney until his shocking death on March 9, 2019, after a cancer diagnosis only approximately one month prior to that time. Lambright had drafted a code of ethics for Montgomery County but felt frustrated over its lack of enforceability. It was Lambright’s dream for the Texas Legislature to give Montgomery County’s government the power to pass an enforceable code of ethics similar to the enforcement power the Legislature had previously conferred on El Paso County for its Code of Ethics.
State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe, was the Author of the Lambright Act in the House, while State Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, was the Sponsor in the Texas Senate. Creighton, a master of parliamentary and legislative procedure, had no trouble gaining passage of the legislation in the Senate. The House, however, lived up to its reputation of “the place where all good bills go to die,” as the Lambright Act faced all sorts of challenges there, although the extraordinarily hardworking and gifted Toth ultimately faced off with all of those challenges and won.
The legislation had originally allowed Montgomery County’s government to establish an ethics commission with an enforceable Code of Ethics, as El Paso County’s government currently has. During the deliberations, Chambers County’s Representative Mayes Middleton, a Republican, successfully amended the bill to add Chambers County as well. After the bill passed both the House and the Senate, however, it went to a Conference Committee under the dual Chairmanship of Toth and Creighton in which the conferees unanimously added language to require all counties and cities in Texas to disclose the terms of the taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts, the amounts they pay under those contracts, and the lobbying purposes of those contracts. While El Paso, Montgomery, and Chambers counties may choose whether or not to opt into the Code of Ethics provisions of the legislation, the taxpayer-funded-lobbying disclosure provisions are mandatory.
When the Conference Committee report came before the Texas House yesterday evening, Representative Yvonne Davis of Dallas, a democrat, raised a Point of Order to argue that the taxpayer-funded-lobbying disclosure provisions were not germane to the original bill, so the bill should die a quick death. It is very rare for legislators to raise points of order on Conference Committee Reports, but Davis made clear the intensity of her opposition when she told a group of legislators gathered in the well of the House, “You’re trying to shame us” (in reference to the mandatory disclosures of taxpayer-funded lobbying).
After Davis raised the Point of Order, a group of Representatives gathered around the House Parliamentarian to argue their positions. Davis, of course, argued in favor of killing the Lambright Act. Toth, State Representative Will Metcalf (Republican of Conroe), State Representative Giovanni Capriglione (Republican of Keller), and State Representative Briscoe Cain (Republican of Deer Park) argued that the HB 1495 Conference Committee Report complied with the House Rules. According to Toth, Cain, also an attorney, was “absolutely brilliant.” Cain has been a loyal ally to conservatives in legislation and in other political matters.
After approximately 15 minutes, the Parliamentarian overruled the Point of Order. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced the ruling. Swiftly, Toth stated “I move passage” and Bonnen proceeded to hold the electronic Floor vote.
An interesting bipartisan coalition supported passage of the Lambright Act, which passed with overwhelming support.
While the Lambright Act provides critical tools for ethics reform for Montgomery and Chambers Counties, it also provides a major tool for Texas citizens to combat taxpayer-funded lobbying, one of the Republican Party of Texas’ Legislative Priorities during the 2018 State Convention.
Toth explained, “Rarely if ever do you see a Point of Order called on conference committee reports. The Democrats were lined up at the behest of the lobby to kill HB 1495. I’ve never seen some of the Democrats so angry. It’s like someone shut down their food truck.”
“The Democrats were lined up at the behest of the lobby to kill HB 1495. I’ve never seen some of the Democrats so angry. It’s like someone shut down their food truck.” – State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe.
Toth went further and said, “Ted Cruz referred to the lobby as the ‘Washington Cartel.’ Here in our State Capital we refer to it as the ‘Austin Cartel.’ Texas is the 10th largest economy in the world (larger than Spain and Russia). With that kind of money, it raises the level and intensity of lobby influence. HB 1495 struck a major blow for the little guy who works his tail off to pay his taxes and then fumes when the Texas Legislature acts against his interests. Why, you may ask? Because his tax dollars have made their way to Austin to influence the very people he elected to work on his behalf only now they’re being influenced to work against him. Those days are done. Local government needs to come clean on how our tax dollars are being spent.”
With this mandatory disclosure requirement, cities and counties will find taxpayer-funded lobbying a significantly greater challenge, particularly as Montgomery County and other areas, such as Collin and Denton Counties, lead the way in citizen activism.
In reality, there are many people who deserve credit for passage of the Lambright Act:
- Toth, who fought hard and who fought smart every step of the way, as well as his wonderful legislative staff;
- Creighton, who is the legislative master, and who guided passage in the Senate and assisted with passage in the House where he previously served, as well as is wonderful legislative staff;
- State Representative Will Metcalf, Republican of Conroe, who worked on the House Floor for passage of the legislation, consistently supported this “tribute to a great man, JD Lambright,” as Metcalf voiced his support, and who ensured the bill would make it onto the House Floor through his outstanding work as a member of the powerful House Calendars Committee;
- Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, who is a former State Representative, who went to Austin to testify and lobby in favor of the legislation;
- JD Lambright, who dreamed of the passage of this bill and who inspired all of us;
- Belinda Cates Lambright, JD’s wife, community leader, and President of the Lake Conroe Area Republican Women, who supported all of the work for passage of the bill;
- State Representative Briscoe Cain, Republican of Deer Park, as discussed above;
- Several members of the Texas House and Texas Senate who were particularly supportive of this legislation, including State Representative Mayes Middleton (Republican of Wallisville), State Representative Duane Bohac (Republican of Houston), State Representative Garnet Coleman (democrat of Houston), State Representative Dan Huberty (Republican of Kingwood), Senator Joan Huffman (Republican of Houston), State Representative Cecil Bell (Republican of Magnolia), and State Representative Alex Dominguez (democrat of Brownsville);
- A person who has requested anonymity but made a brilliant suggestion with respect to the bill;
- Montgomery County Republican Party Vice Chairman Reagan Reed who led the move in the County GOP Executive Committee to endorse the bill, as well as the members of the County GOP Executive Committee (the Precinct Chairs);
- State Republican Chairman James Dickey and State Republican Executive Committee members Mark Ramsey and Gail Stanart who helped to support this legislation;
- The entire Montgomery County Commissioners Court, which, upon the urging of Judge Keough, adopted a resolution urging passage of the bill;
- The Chambers County Commissioners Court;
- The Travis County Commissioners Court;
- Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, Republican of Austin, who was very supportive and helpful; and
- Travis County Government Affairs Director Deece Eckstein.
As Toth said, passage of the Lambright Act was a victory for all Texans.