‘Winnin’ time’ in Austin…but only if TPA members help

During the height of his basketball career, Magic Johnson called the last two minutes of a game “winnin’ time.” He meant that most games are decided in the last 120 seconds of an NBA game, so any team worth its salt — any “winnin’ team” — plays those last two minutes with special intensity.

Analysis by Donnis Bagett, TPA Executive Vice President

“Winnin’ time” in the Texas Legislature is the last four to six weeks of the session…which is exactly where we are now. Committees are racing to hold hearings on as many bills as possible. And lobbyists — including your TPA lobby team — are doing everything possible to advance the bills helpful to our cause and to kill the ones that are dangerous.
It’s very much “game on.” None of our big bills have passed yet, and while we have managed to stop, stall or amend a number of objectional bills, we still watch them closely in case they get tacked onto some otherwise harmless bill as an amendment. We can’t assume they’re truly dead until the gavel falls on May 31.
With that preamble, you’re probably wondering: Where do we stand on public notice in newspapers? Well, so far, so good. But it’s much too early to relax.
Within an ocean of 8,981 pieces of legislation filed this session, TPA is tracking more than 200 bills. Of those 200+, we’ve identified 95 bills that touch on public notice in newspapers in some fashion or another. That’s almost half of the bills we’re tracking altogether. Of those 95, only a handful seek to eliminate newspaper notices. These bills haven’t generated much enthusiasm among legislators this time around, thanks to last year’s interim committee report by a joint House-Senate committee on public notices. The joint committee affirmed the importance of newspaper notices and said lawmakers should consider adding methods of providing public notice, not eliminating them.
But despite that positive report just five months ago, we are fighting a couple of bad public notice bills that totally ignore the findings and recommendations of the joint committee.
HB 1530 by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, was heard in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee on Monday, April 24. The bill would allow a governmental entity to satisfy current newspaper notice requirements by instead placing the notices in “any other form of media” that the governmental entity chooses...including the entity’s own website. TPA witnesses testified vigorously against the bill on Monday.
TPA also testified against HB XXXX by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, which would do away with the legal requirement for newspaper notices listing polling places.
These two bills, or variations of them, have been filed in previous sessions and failed to pass. We are hopeful this year’s versions will not get out of committee, but if they do, we’ll mount a full-court press to defeat them on the House floor. 
There are good bills of interest to newspapers, of course. None have passed both houses yet, but they are still very much alive. Here are four important measures we’re supporting, the House versions of which were heard in committee on Monday:
• SB 407 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and its companion, HB 792 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, aim to repair the damage done by the 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling in the infamous Boeing case. The court ruled that businesses and governmental entities can avoid releasing information about their contracts even after the deals are consummated. They can simply claim that releasing the information might put them at a competitive disadvantage at some point in the future. SB 407 has already passed the Senate. 
• SB 408 by Watson and its companion, HB 793 by Capriglione, aim to undo another bad Supreme Court ruling. In the Greater Houston Partnership case, the high court ignored decades of precedent and ruled that the non-profit, which is paid by the City of Houston to perform economic development work, is not subject to the public information act.  The result: the public has no way of knowing how its tax money is being spent by the Greater Houston Partnership. SB 408 has also passed the Senate, despite strong opposition from business and non-profit interests. 
• HB 2710 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would restore access to dates of birth in governmental records. A 3rd Court of Appeals ruling — which the Texas Supreme Court refused to consider on appeal — made much of that information off limits.
• HB 2670 by Hunter would put teeth in the law to close the infamous “custodial loophole” that has enabled officials who use their private electronic devices for public business to ignore laws that clearly state that the documents public. The bill establishes a process for the attorney general to force scofflaw officials to comply. 
Another good piece of legislation, SB 1347 by Sen. Watson and HB 2328 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, would establish a process for a governmental entity to expedite a public information request. By allowing entities to redact information that has previously been excepted from disclosure, the bill promises to lessen the backlog of routine requests for an attorney general’s opinion and get information to requestors within five days. Requestors who believe the information they receive has been redacted inappropriately can appeal to the attorney general if they wish. The measure is awaiting a vote by the full House. It has been heard in the Senate but has not yet cleared committee. 
Two of the very worst bills that we’re tracking this session are HB 3387and HB 3388, by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian. HB 3387 and its companion, SB 2121 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would change the definition of a public figure, making it much easier for a public official or other high-profile public figure to win a libel suit. HB 3388 would gut the reporter’s privilege law, which protects journalists somewhat from subpoenas requiring them to provide unpublished notes and photos and the identities of confidential sources. Those bills are still very much alive, and we’re fighting them hard. If you haven’t already done so, please contact your state representative and state senator and urge them to vote against these bills. 
We’ve enjoyed a good track record for our TPA legislative program over the years and we hope to keep that record intact this session. But we can succeed only if you help. If we ask you to contact your legislator, please do so.
TPA is a rarity among trade associations in Austin. Our political currency is not campaign contributions, but the credibility and influence of our members. Our newspapers matter a great deal in Texas communities, and TPA members’ opinions matter to the lawmakers those communities send to Austin.
We should never be shy about telling them what we think...especially at “winnin’ time.”

As executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, Donnis Baggett leads the TPA governmental affairs program, which is focused on protecting open records, open meetings and public notices in newspapers at all levels.