Citing his longtime support of government transparency and his hard work to restore public access during the 2017 legislative session, Texas Press Association named Texas Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a Friend of the First Amendment.
TPA Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett said Watson's work to preserve First Amendment protections and access to government information earned him the award.
"In the last legislative session, Sen. Watson got our key bills passed by the Senate not once but twice," Baggett said. “And then, when the House failed to pass them the second time, he got them through the Senate a third time in the form of amendments to other legislation.”
In the 2017 legislative session, Watson sponsored two important pieces of legislation to restore access to information that was sealed by two 2015 Texas Supreme Court rulings: the Boeing case, in which the court ruled that businesses and governmental entities can avoid releasing information about their contracts even after the deals are consummated by claiming the information might put them at a competitive disadvantage in the future; and the Greater Houston Partnership case, in which the court ruled that non-profits paid by government entities to perform economic development or other work are not subject to the public information act.
While the bills passed handily in the Senate, companion House bills sponsored by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, died in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee.
The loopholes provided by the two court rulings are used by government agencies and the businesses and non-profits they contract with to avoid releasing information that was public for decades — from the construction costs of major governmental projects to how much a top entertainer is paid to perform at a local concert and even the names of finalists for a city manager appointment.
"When I talk about the last session, I talk about this work," Watson said. "We’ll be back with the Texas Sunshine Coalition next session to restore open government and transparency to Texans. We need it more than we've ever needed it."
In the months since the 2017 session closed, the newly formed Texas Sunshine Coalition has been working with Watson to plan legislation addressing four public information issues:
• Access to information about how taxpayer money is spent in the context of government contracts with private entities (the Boeing case);
• Access to information about nonprofit or quasi-public organizations that receive public money and perform traditional government functions (the Greater Houston Partnership case);
• Access to information regarding individuals' dates of birth (Paxton V. City of Dallas, a court ruling that public citizens’ dates of birth are protected by common-law privacy); and
• Access to public information about government businesses that officials hold on private devices or channels, such as cell phones or personal email addresses.
Watson noted the coalition continues to grow as a non-partisan, diverse group of organizations committed to protecting First Amendment rights and improving government transparency.
Watson has served in the Texas Senate since 2007 and previously served as mayor of Austin. He is a partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell, LLP.
Watson serves as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Nominations and also sits on the committees overseeing Finance, Health and Human Services, and Higher Education. He also serves on the Joint Oversight Committee on Government Facilities and the Sunset Advisory Commission.
His priorities center on education, health care, transportation, government transparency and state employees.