With the Texas Legislature now in session, constituents across the state get the chance to sit back and enjoy the constant stream of debate and discourse emanating from the Capitol. Lawmaking can be a frustrating process to follow, but now citizens have the chance to gain just a little more insight as to what motivates our elected officials to make some of their political choices.
The Texas Tribune, the nonprofit, nonpartisan public media organization based in Austin, is carrying out a session-long in-depth look into state politicians’ interests and how they can run counter to the public’s own. The Tribune's Bidness As Usual Project is a collection of stories that will run through the length of the 83rd session, but citizens will now also have the chance to easily browse the backgrounds of our state officials with the new Lawmaker Explorer online tool.
The Lawmaker Explorer, A Guide to the Financial Interests of State Legislators, provides citizens with an in-depth look at all 180 Texas Legislature members, plus the governor and lieutenant governor. Information provided in the database includes a lawmaker’s employment history and financial records, from stock holdings to campaign finance data. Even ethics investigations and analysis from 20 Tribune reporters are provided to shed more light on a lawmaker’s ethical background.
“Session after session, we’d see lawmakers come up to the microphone to speak on behalf of a piece of legislation, or try to kill another, and we’d really have no frame of reference for why,” says Emily Ramshaw, Editor of the Texas Tribune. The Explorer is meant to give the public insight into those who represent us and what can motivate them to sometimes go against the interests of their constituents.
Ramshaw says the process of collecting this information was a challenging nine months of work, and describes the state's disclosure laws as “outdated and vague — the primary reporting form, for example, hasn’t been modernized in two decades.” It certainly isn’t the type of information that politicians would like to have out in the open. “Many state lawmakers didn’t want to cooperate; there's very little motivating them to fully disclose their personal and financial interests.”
The Lawmaker Explorer makes that information easy to access for anyone. Readers can simply search lawmakers by name or browse categories based on political party or by state office. While the tool currently only includes information on state legislators, Ramshaw sees the Explorer as a vital tool that will need to expand to provide necessary public information.
Ramshaw hopes to soon include all statewide officials, whether it’s comptroller or railroad commissioners. “We hope to have that done by the end of the session.”
She hopes that readers will stick with what is a work-in-progress. Users are invited to email the Tribune for ideas on improving it and any tips into potential conflicts of interest over the course of the session and beyond, making sure to keep government responsible and accountable to those it serves.