It is often said, particularly in the service industry, that one gets what one pays for. Fortunately for the citizens of Texas, it is my belief Texans get far more than they pay for in the service of the members of its Legislature. It is no secret that I often take strong issue with the actions, or lack of action, on the part of various legislators. Nonetheless, I developed a keen respect for those willing to give their time and effort in an attempt to make Texas a better place.
Of late there has been some public outcry about ethical lapses of members of the state Legislature. The criticism generally centers around the fact that legislators have outside employment. As an example, a recent news article took to task several members of the Legislature because one ran an insurance agency and voted on matters related to insurance. Another was in the small loan business and was criticized for standing on the floor of the House and defending the industry in which he was involved. The current rule of thumb, ethically speaking in the Legislature, is that a member of the House or Senate is free to vote for any measure that affects that member in the same manner as everyone else in the same situation is affected. In a part-time Legislature where members of the Legislature receive the princely amount of $600 a month for their service, that seems to be a fair standard of ethical conduct.
Generally, stringent rules of ethics are not very effective in policing ethical conduct--particularly when, as in Texas, the agency charged with policing ethics is more of a toothless watchdog than anything else. A shining example of the weakness of the Texas Ethics Commission is when they ruled that taking a check instead of cash did not amount to bribery or violate the ethical rules of Texas.
Frankly, with part-time service in our Legislature, I would rather depend on full disclosure by each legislator as to the general source of his or her income, as is now required. The benefit of part time legislators is that they live in the community and generally face the same everyday challenges as do their constituents. If the folks want to have an insurance agent represent them in the Legislature and vote on matters relative to insurance policies, homeowner decisions, etc., so be it.
If ever the state of Texas wants to get serious about having a serious contingency in its Legislature, the Constitution should be amended to require annual sessions of at least 6 months and pay its legislators about $100,000 per year, as well as awarding them a general expense allowance for the operation of their Austin and local offices. The annual sessions and the increased salaries should be accompanied by strict rules against outside employment or income.
For years I held forth, to anyone who would listen, advocating better pay for members of the Legislature. But, I have finally reversed my tactics in this matter and now throw in with the naysayers and simply say this: If you paid a decent salary to members of the Legislature, then any kind of trashy folks could serve, and not just those with trust funds or sufficient incomes to sustain themselves in Austin.