Freshman hazing, now frowned upon in many of our finer institutions of higher education, is alive and well in the Texas Legislature. I don’t know what kind of hazing goes on behind closed doors, but I do know the verbal variety is meted out very publicly in legislative chambers and committee rooms.
A first-term legislator knows he or she is about to become a hazee when a phrase akin to this is uttered by an upperclassman: “This is your first bill, isn’t it?”
From there, the hijinks ensue, sometimes clever but more often kind of routine. It’s good-natured, welcome-to-the-frat fun, and that’s where it seemed to be heading recently when fabulously-named freshman Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, presented his HB 524 at the House State Affairs Committee on Feb. 27.
“Have you laid out a bill before?” Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, inquired.
“No,” the rookie responded, “but we don’t have to dwell on that.”
“If he doesn’t speak up he’s not going to get this one laid out very well,” said Rep. Charles Geren, R-Fort Worth.
It looked for all the world like we were heading for routine freshman hazing. We were not. What ensued was one of the more unusual committee hearings I’ve seen in a while. (FYI, I watched the archived video of it after someone brought it to my attention). The hearing featured House veterans accusing a freshman — one who last year ousted one of the vets’ longtime colleagues — of bringing a political vendetta to the Capitol.
Heavens knows the Capitol is no place for a political vendetta.
HB 524 is a pretty simple piece of legislation that would require candidates and officeholders to disclose any contracts he or she has with “a governmental entity.” Seems like a pretty good idea, and Capriglione’s interest in the topic stems from his successful 2012 GOP primary race against seven-term Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller.
During that campaign (a re-run of a 2010 race won by Truitt), it came out that Truitt’s company had lucrative no-bid contracts with the Tarrant County Hospital District. Without getting into the relative merits of a lawmaker having a no-bid contract with an entity that could benefit from legislation, such contracts seem like something voters might want to know about. Contracts like that are public information, but much more sunlight can be shined on them by requiring candidates and officeholders to disclose them on required financial disclosure forms.
Capriglione, who has filed several transparency-related bills, thought this one was important enough to be his first bill. He’s aware there’s lots of room for discussion, including about whether the disclosure requirements should cover government contracts held by a candidate’s relatives. Good for him for pursuing the concept and being open to discussion about it.
“What this does is it brings us up to another level” of disclosure, he told the committee, mentioning the lack of public trust in Washington. Disclosure can be a dirty word to some lawmakers.
The adverse questioning began with Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring,
“If you’re trying to address the lack of trust in Washington why are you bringing a state bill?” she asked.
Capriglione talked about “doing what we can here in the House to maintain our ethics and maintain our level of trust higher and higher every session.”
Harless: “Do you think we’re unethical as members of the House?”
“Absolutely not,’ said Capriglione, adding “we have to continuously set the bar higher.”
“So,” Harless said, “do you think this proposed legislation is more about things that happened in your political campaign or good public policy, because I see this being translated as a campaign vendetta brought to the Legislature.”
Vendetta? Is it a vendetta to try to do something about a problem you came across in the course of a campaign? I think not.
In response to challenging questions from Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, Capriglione said, “What this bill does is it focuses on making sure people know when we make a vote that we may or may not have an interest.”
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, picked it up from there.
“There’s been some concern that a lot of this is dealing with politics, and it may not be your intention, but when you bring it here right after you get elected and you had a hot race … it sounds a lot like it would be sour grapes here.”
Aren’t sour grapes usually for the loser? Capriglione won. What does he have to be sour about? He’s a lawmaker trying to pass a law he thinks is needed. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?
Hilderbran then asked about a Capriglione campaign website, then still online though the campaign is long over, pointing out Truitt’s government contracts.
“Why is it still up? That suggests a vendetta,” Hilderbran said, branding it as “a website that is ridiculing one of our former colleagues.”
Capriglione said something about a one-year subscription for the website and his campaign consultant. Hilderbran was unsatisfied.
“Think about what that tells us about you and what it tells us about legislation and what your motives might be,” Hilderbran told Capriglione.
What it tells me is that, yes, perhaps Capriglione should take down the website, but what’s that got to do with his bill?
More from Hildrebran to his freshman colleague: “I got to tell you this thing just seems like it’s associated with bad motives.” Capriglione disavowed bad motives and said he’d promised voters this would be the first thing he’d pursue if elected. Hilderbran that seconded the vendetta notion.
“You can understand why we might see that,” he told Capriglione.
Having beaten the freshman up a bit, the committee got around to calling witnesses who wanted to testify on the bill. There were two, both representing news organizations that support the measure.
First up was longtime Texas newspaperman Donnis Baggett, now executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, which represents 475 newspapers, ranging from large dailies to small-town weeklies.
“We see this bill as an opportunity to bring another ray of sunshine into our process,” Baggett told the committee.
Newspapers like sunshine more than some politicians do.
Hilderbran talked about the changing media landscape and about conflicts that “agenda-driven media” might have.
“The media probably needs a little sunshine on itself,” he said
Said Baggett: “I don’t know about those folks. I’m here representing the newspapers. And we try to do it right. We make mistakes, but we do try to do it right.”
Hilderbran came back with this: “Fortunately you got a whole lot (more) of smaller ones than you do big ones and that’s what keeps you all clean living, baby. … If you were just all the big guys you wouldn’t be too clean.”
Smaller-town lawmakers love smaller-town newspapers. They love them because many of them, especially weeklies, do not cover what happens at the Capitol. Many “report” on it by printing the local lawmaker’s weekly update from Austin. Local lawmakers tend to look good in what they write about themselves.
Capriglione’s unpleasant day at the State Affairs Committee ended with him acknowledging his bill needed some tweaking. But he insisted it’s needed.
“The purpose of this bill is quite frankly to provide more sunlight and more transparency on what we’re doing here in the Legislature,” he said in closing.
By late last week, Capriglione had reached agreement with panel members on a revised bill, clearing the way for them to move it to the House floor, he told the Texas Tribune. Open government activists and media attention had helped his cause, he said.
The measure also has deep support among his constituents, he told me. “It’s one of these things that when I tell people what I’m trying to do they always say, ‘I can’t believe that’s not the law already,’” he said.
“I was ready for the routine freshman thing,” Capriglione added about the committee session. And he knows better than to complain about the not-so-routine freshman thing he endured.