Technology Woes Hamper Texas Ethics Watchdog

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There’s a lot of money that goes into getting candidates elected, but not so much that goes into tracking political giving and ensuring compliance with Texas ethics rules.

The Texas Ethics Commission is the agency tasked collecting and publishing candidate reports on donations and expenses, registering lobbyists, enforcing contribution limits in judicial races, and enforcing other ethics rules intended to promote public confidence in government.

Yet the agency is operating without the IT personnel that it needs, uses legacy servers to maintain databases of critical public records, struggles to keep software licensing costs within budget, and tracks public information requests on Excel spreadsheets and Word documents.

According to the agency’s Legislative Appropriations Request, published September 11, 2020, the commission advertised two new programmer positions in the past year but has been unable to fill them. The agency administrator wrote, “The salaries are posted at a range of $55,000 — $60,000, which is below the state (government) average of $60,575 for a Programmer II and $70,522 for a Programmer III, and well below the private sector market rate of $83,877.”

“These positions are essential to the agency’s purpose because they are necessary for the operation of the filing application and the agency’s website. Without multiple employees within the agency familiar with the agency’s needs, the TEC will be unable to maintain and update its technology as needed to comply with law.”

Executive Director Anne Peters asked that the legislature authorize an increase in programmer salaries by $16,097 per fiscal year. However, the change would only take effect in the coming biennium, fiscal year; the appropriations request covers the period of September 1, 2021 to August 31, 2023.

And Peters actually may have downplayed the problem. An organizational chart for the commission, current to September 1, shows four vacant programmer positions, not two. The agency has only three filled IT positions: one systems support specialist and two programmers.

In its budget request, the ethics commission asked for $447,890 for a vendor contract to help run the electronic filing system and database where candidate disclosures are kept, because the agency’s in-house programmer’s don’t yet have a handle on the system.

“The architecture of the new filing system is complex,” reads a budget justification. “The code base consists of several hundred thousand lines of Java code… the agency IT programming staff has not had sufficient time to learn the code structure of the system.”

“Thus, the vendor’s contract needs to be renewed to not only fix the defects inherent in the system, but also work with the agency IT staff to provide hands-on learning of the code base of the new system so that the agency staff can modify and maintain the code base in-house.”

Without the help of this vendor, Peters warned, “Some problems will not be fixed, which will negatively affect filers trying to file statutorily required reports by the filing deadline to avoid penalties.”

Peters also cautioned that the commission risks losing the few IT staff it has left: “the TEC anticipates multiple retirements and has already had one experienced programmer retire, for a loss of 10 years of historical knowledge and cumulative total experience.”

Staff retention issues go beyond the IT department. The agency’s turnover rate overall was 32% in the 2019 fiscal year and 21% in the 2020 fiscal year, due to staff retiring or leaving to work at other state agencies for higher salaries.

The appropriations request asks for approval for new capital spending of $150,000 per year on managed cloud services, explaining, “The Texas Ethics Commission’s electronic filing system is running on legacy server hardware that soon will no longer be supported by Dell. The Commission is not willing to risk operating the state’s electronic filing system on legacy, unsupported hardware, and has selected to migrate the electronic filing system to the AWS (Amazon Web Services) cloud.”

TEC wants to outsource the work of migrating the data and managing the cloud environment, “due to the… the difficulty to find, hire, and keep Unix system administration and software engineering skills in-house.”

Another challenge for the agency is its legal defense budget. The Texas Attorney General, who is indicted for securities fraud and faces allegations of criminal conduct from six of his own deputies, has refused to defend the Texas Ethics Commission in court.

The Legislative Appropriations Request asks for $300,000 per year for outside counsel. It notes, “Since August 22, 2014, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has declined to represent the TEC in five lawsuits and seven appeals challenging the constitutionality of laws passed by the Legislature. Since then, the TEC has paid $738,025 out of its own budget for the work of outside counsel in defense of these lawsuits.”

“Thus far, the Commission has consistently prevailed in every court-trial and appellate-that has considered these lawsuits.”

The Texas Ethics Commission spent about $2.5 million in fiscal year 2019. After a budget increase by the 86th Legislature, it upped spending to $3.4 million in FY 2020, within the appropriated amount of $3.7 million.

The General Appropriations Act of 2019, which covered a two-year period, dedicated about 38% of the budget to information resources.

After the coronavirus hit, the picture for the agency changed. Like most other state agencies, the ethics commission was ordered to cut spending by 5% this biennium, a reduction of about $356,000. Those cuts were achieved partly by reduced travel and lowering budgets for training symposiums.

The ethics commission is authorized to employ 34.4 employees. It oversees compliance filings by some 2,800 public officials and 1,500 lobbyists.

Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on October 15, 2020.

Original reporting on local Austin news, Texas politics, and the economy. honestaustin.com

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