If we weren’t already convinced that the proverbial pen packs a powerful punch, the newspaper industry’s recent success in battling those Canadian newsprint tariffs ought to make all of us sit up a little straighter today. In fact, that victory offers pretty compelling testimony to what we can accomplish as an association, when enough of us take a few minutes out of our already busy days, to make a phone call, write a letter or email, and sling a little ink at an issue that threatens our livelihoods and our profession.
This is the perfect time – at the looming precipice of another legislative session – to flex those editorial muscles and sharpen those pens. Setting a desktop alert for emails from our TPA representatives, who routinely notify their member newspapers of bad bills, and responding quickly to their calls for action, would also be wise.
The same sinister forces that have nibbled away at public notice laws and government transparency for years are already circling the State Capitol … and that’s no cheap chum they’re tossing in the waters for bait.
A recent column by FOIFT Executive Director Kelley Shannon warned of the widening swath of secrecy that resulted from two rulings by Texas’ Supreme Court in 2015. One allowed the giant aerospace company, Boeing Corp., to shield its lease terms with the Port of San Antonio from public scrutiny. The other protected the nonprofit Greater Houston Partnership from opening its financial records to the public, despite GHP’s involvement in taxpayer-funded economic development work for the city of Houston.
Since then, more than 2,600 other opinions by the Texas Attorney General Paxton have cited the Boeing ruling as justification for denying the public’s right to know, and as many as 35 have cited the GHP decision. Among them:
Denton Municipal Electric refused to release contract details or dollar amounts for what was an estimated $265 million power plant being built, citing the Boeing ruling as justification.
The city of Austin refused to release the names of its city manager finalists to the public, arguing that it would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other cities. They also referred to the Boeing ruling.
The city of McAllen, the Agua Special Utility District in the Rio Grande Valley, and Lone Star College in East Texas all fought open records requests by citing Boeing, as did others. (Learn more at https://txsunshine.org.)
Meanwhile, Attorney General Ken Paxton crowed in a recent news release about his office having handled a record number of public information requests and issued an all-time high number of rulings in 2018. He might just as well have tipped his hat to Boeing Corp. and GHP, for that.
It’s somewhat akin to the local fire department bragging about the record number of fires it has battled over the last year, without giving credit to the arsonist who set them.
The stakes for Texas newspapers in defending the public’s right to know and government accountability have never been greater. The stakes for the public are even greater. The challenge ahead for Texas newspapers is to make sure our readers know it, understand it, and are engaged in the fight.
We know it is possible to do so. The response from many of our readers to the editorials we published during the tariff fight was ample proof of one thing: If the public understands clearly what we all stand to lose, what the greater costs are to democracy, and how they can make their own voices heard, then our ranks will grow, and our influence be far greater.
And if the members of the TPA are united, consistent, and unwavering in the message we send to our elected officials, our voices may actually be heard over the din of the almighty dollar.
It’s time to rally the troops.