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A Texas lawmaker worked with the state restaurant association to draft an alcohol-to-go bill. His wife lobbies for the group.

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Gov. Greg Abbott allowed alcohol to go with an emergency waiver last year. Lawmakers want to make that option permanent in hopes of helping struggling restaurants. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

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Texas lawmakers are pushing to permanently allow restaurants to sell alcohol for pickup and delivery orders, which Gov. Greg Abbott allowed with an emergency waiver starting in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, a restaurant owner, filed legislation that would provide an industry crushed by the coronavirus pandemic with the new, permanent revenue stream. The Fort Worth Republican said his Railhead Smokehouse restaurant doesn’t have a mixed beverage permit. That means his barbecue joint, called “a Fort Worth staple” by Texas Monthly, would not benefit from the bill.

But House Bill 1024 could benefit a client of Geren’s wife, Texas lobbyist Mindy Ellmer. The Texas Restaurant Association, which is backing the legislation, paid Ellmer between $25,000 and $49,000 for lobbying work from September through December, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Adrian Shelley, Texas director of the progressive consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said that mix of personal and political ties underscores that the state’s ethics laws should be strengthened. Shelley said “there is nothing here that meets the legal definition of a conflict of interest,” according to Texas law.

“The real issue is that Texas’ ethics law is weak,” Shelley said.

Geren and Ellmer, who have been married since 2017, both said they didn’t discuss her restaurant lobbying with each other.

“I’m not involved in her conversations with the restaurant association,” Geren told The Texas Tribune.

Ellmer said Geren’s restaurant “doesn’t have a mixed beverage permit, therefore there is no conflict. I don’t know how else to say that,” she told The Texas Tribune.

Texas lawmakers have for years been uninterested in passing strong ethics reform laws, like in 2015 when lawmakers considered, but ultimately failed to pass into law, about two dozen proposals aimed at curbing conflicts of interest and shining light into the dark corners of the Capitol.

Abraham Benavides, a professor at the University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service, said conflicts of interests are difficult to avoid in a Legislature that works part time, and where lawmakers have other jobs and businesses besides being elected officials.

“You’re going to have this group of individuals that are going to gather in the Capitol that represent all kinds of different walks of life and different businesses, and therefore it’s going to be difficult to prevent somebody from having an interest in one business or another,” said Benavides, who agreed with Shelley that Texas’ regulations should be strengthened.

Still, Benavides said, legislators should keep “an arm’s length distance,” and let other colleagues file bills that might be close to their areas of business.

Geren and Ellmer’s relationship raised ethics questions in 2017. She had been a lobbyist for AT&T, which pushed for a bill that cut city fees for telecommunications companies. According to a KXAN-TV investigation at the time, Geren was “a driving force” for the bill.

In the case of alcohol to go, there’s likely to be rare bipartisan support for the measure considering it would expand Texans’ access to booze. And there’s wide consensus that the troubled restaurant industry needs the extra revenue.

Kelsey Erickson Streufert, vice president of government relations and advocacy with the TRA, said her group has worked on the legislation for months with Geren and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who filed accompanying legislation in the Senate.

“This work was well underway before Mindy Ellmer joined our lobby team,” Streufert said in an email. “Now she is advocating for it on the association’s behalf along with our other contract lobbyists and internal team.”

Allowing alcohol to go in Texas would be an important step, industry members say, in a state that has been historically restrictive with alcohol. Since the repeal of prohibition, the state has banned selling liquor on Sundays in stores, and distilleries have limits on the amount of bottles a person can buy, among other limitations.

“As far as the laws go, we’re a little behind on how the other states have evolved in some of their liquor laws,” said Mike Cameron, president of the Texas Distillers Association and owner of Devils River Whiskey in San Antonio. “And so, you know, a lot of states have Sunday sales, and the liquor stores are open for longer hours. It’s different in Texas. It’s more limited.”

The new, permanent alcohol-to-go option could benefit the restaurant industry after it has faced an excruciating 10 months of the coronavirus. According to the TRA, 700,000 restaurant employees in Texas lost their jobs in the early days the pandemic, and more than 10,000 Texas restaurants have already closed. With business hampered due to continued increases in infections, 30% of Texas restaurant operators still in business said in December they were concerned about the fate of their operations.

During the opening ceremonies of the 2021 legislative session Tuesday, top officials were optimistic about the prospect of legislators making alcohol to go permanent law.

“Public and higher education shifted curricula online, telemedicine made health care accessible in every corner or the state, and 51 years after putting a man on the moon, we figured out how to sell margaritas to go,” Dade Phelan said in his acceptance speech after being elected Texas House speaker Tuesday. “The Texas Legislature should embrace these regulatory changes, learn from them, and eliminate unnecessary, burdensome regulations from our statutes once and for all.”

When congratulating the Beaumont Republican on his new position, Abbott led off with a demand.

“It is essential to me that the speaker is in favor of keeping alcohol to go in [Texas],” Abbott said.

Geren said that he, Hancock and the TRA have already spent months working on this legislation, fielding input from the battered restaurant and alcohol industries.

“I look forward to working with the Legislature to pass this bill that will be a valuable revenue source to help our Texas restaurants come back from the devastating impacts of the pandemic,” he said.

Disclosure: AT&T, Texas Monthly and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.