Critical legislative issues top busy agenda for TPA

Legislative sessions are always hectic, but the 2019 session could be one of the busiest ever for the Texas Press Association.
With the bill-filing deadline for regular legislation still two weeks away as of the Messenger’s deadline, lawmakers already had filed 4,259 pieces of legislation. The total could easily top 7,000 when the filing frenzy comes to an end.

Analysis by by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

TPA’s Legislative Advisory Committee was tracking 125 bills — some good, some bad and others that are harmless now but could turn downright ugly if harmful amendments are tacked on before the session ends May 27. When the dust clears at the filing deadline we’ll likely be tracking 200 or more.
That’s quite a load. Most industry associations have a handful of regulatory or finance-related bills to watch. TPA doesn’t have that luxury. Not only must we protect the business side of newspapering, but we must fight for government transparency and accountability — keeping meetings and records open, and keeping public notices in newspapers. And there are always some ill-advised bills that would limit our First Amendment rights if they’re left unchallenged.
Your TPA staff sifts through the growing mountain of bills daily with an eye out for legislation that could impact Texas newspapers. The Legislative Advisory Committee, comprised of TPA member newspaper executives and staff, meets regularly by conference call to discuss the flagged bills and decide whether to take a position on each.
Here are our top priorities this session:
• Protect Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law. Efforts are afoot to weaken this critical law, which protects defendants from being bled to death financially by a meritless nuisance suit. The law provides for early dismissal of frivolous cases and for attorney fees. It has saved Texas newspapers millions and has become a model around the nation.
• Stop bills that would weaken public notice, such as HB 1229 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. It would allow governmental entities to meet all notice requirements by posting notices on their government websites, which have notoriously low readership. Worse yet, they could satisfy notice requirements by simply posting on social media. Newspapers would be an option, not a requirement.
• Pass SB 943/HB 2189 to repair damage by the Texas Supreme Court’s Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership rulings. The 2015 decisions drastically weakened the Texas Public Information Act by allowing governments and businesses to seal information about their contracts. The result: Taxpayers can’t see how their money is spent. This legislation by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would fix the problem.
• Pass HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, to restore access to dates of birth in records covered under the Texas Public Information Act. This became necessary after another destructive court ruling. Dates of birth are essential to reporters and others who must differentiate between individuals with common names. DOB access is also crucial for lenders, employers doing background checks on applicants, and commercial data providers such as Lexis/Nexis.
• Pass HB 147 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, to provide access to police reports after suspects die. State law currently allows police to keep records sealed as long they like if they classify as case as “open.” Some departments take advantage of the loophole by never closing a controversial case. That makes it difficult if not impossible for the public or families of deceased suspects to learn what happened.
• Pass SB 944/HB 1700 by Sen. Watson and Rep. Hunter to close the “custodian loophole” that some government officials use to hide public information on their private devices. Texas law says a government document is classified as public based on its content — not on the device that it’s written or stored upon. But the law lacks teeth, so scofflaws simply ignore public information requests if the documents exist only on their private devices.  This bill would establish legal procedures to put an end to that.
TPA has no political action committee, and very few TPA members make individual campaign contributions. Our influence in Austin comes down to our vigilance, our persuasiveness and our members’ influence with their lawmakers.
That influence is critical as we battle for transparency, freedom of the press and a healthy legal and business environment for newspapers. So when we ask you to call your legislators about a bill, or to come to Austin to testify, we’re counting on you to say yes.
Remember: The future of your newspaper could depend on it.