A Houston Democrat signaled Monday that he and fellow Democrats would try to restore state funding to the Public Integrity Unit that was stripped by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, but it’s sure to be an uphill effort.
The Public Integrity Unit, which investigates politicians’ ethical breaches as well as tax and insurance fraud, has 400 active cases and needs continued funding, Rep. Sylvester Turner told his colleagues Monday.
Turner, D-Houston, said he would work to ensure that the unit gets the money it requires to operate, despite Perry’ veto Friday of the state’s $7.5 million appropriation to the office.
Turner has been fighting attempts for 10 years to move, de-fund and kill the Public Integrity Unit, which is based in the Travis County District Attorney’s office, he said. This year, the effort has been especially challenging since Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, has served time in jail for drunken driving. She returned to work last week.
Turner said it would be irresponsible to take away funding for the unit. “We’re going to push the issue,” he said. But Democrats, who number 55 in the 150-member House, cannot act without support from their Republican colleagues.
From the back microphone of the Texas House, Turner asked Republican Speaker Joe Straus if any options exist to fund the unit. Straus said his office would do some research for Turner.
“With the questions from Mr. Turner and others, it’s certainly something that we should explore with the governor and with the Public Integrity Unit personnel. I’m assuming that the governor’s office has considered this,” Straus said in an interview. “We just have to assess where we are, and what the implications are as we go forward.”
Turner also said he planned to file a resolution specifying that the House intends to override Perry’s veto, even though it is not clear if the Legislature has that authority. Perry controls the special session agenda, and he did not put the budget on lawmakers’ to-do list.
“The issue really hasn’t been addressed,” Turner said. “I think this is a good one to set precedent on.”
Perry spokesman Rich Parsons said the Legislature cannot override a veto from a previous session, including the regular session that ended May 27.
Also Monday, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, asked from the House floor if funding could be revived if Lehmberg resigns. House leaders didn’t have an immediate response.
But Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said it is possible to restore funding through budget execution action, which involves the governor and the Legislative Budget Board agreeing to move money from other parts of the budget.
Perry has suggested that Travis County pay for the unit if it is a high priority.
County commissioners will discuss Perry’s veto in a closed session Tuesday with their attorneys to discuss legislative matters, County Judge Sam Biscoe said. However, they would not be able to take action in a closed meeting to fund the unit with county taxpayer money.