The sunshine is at last breaking through the clouds of Texas government more than halfway through the 2019 legislative session.
Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association
Pro-transparency bills supported by the Texas Press Association have generated positive response from legislators in committee hearings so far. That doesn’t necessarily mean all our bills will pass, but it’s a remarkable improvement over the mood of lawmakers in the last legislative session in 2017.
That change is largely due to strong public support evidenced by the long list of bipartisan non-media groups in the Texas Sunshine Coalition. The coalition was formed to broaden the base of support for transparency bills championed by TPA, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Association of Broadcasters.
The Texas House of Representatives has already passed HB 81 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, requiring governmental entities to disclose information about concerts and other public events funded by taxpayer dollars. The bill would close a loophole in the Texas Public Information Act that allowed McAllen city officials to withhold how much they paid singer Enrique Iglesias for a concert appearance at a Christmas parade.
At the time, city officials argued that publicizing how much they paid the singer would jeopardize future negotiations with performers. The Texas Attorney General’s Office agreed, citing a Texas Supreme Court’s so-called “Boeing ruling.”
Other bills on TPA’s watch list aimed at restoring and strengthening access to public records include:
• SB 943/HB 2189, by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, 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. As a result, taxpayers can’t see how their money is spent.
• HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, to restore access to dates of birth in records under the Texas Public Information Act. This became necessary after another destructive court ruling by the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. Dates of birth are essential to reporters, lenders, employers doing background checks on applicants, and commercial data providers such as Lexis/Nexis who must differentiate between people with common names.
• HB 147 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, to provide public access to police reports after suspects die. State law now allows police to keep records sealed as long as a case is classified as “open.” Some departments take advantage of that by never closing a controversial case. That makes it difficult if not impossible for families and citizens to learn the unvarnished details of a death in which officers were involved.
• SB 944/HB 1700 by Sen. Watson and Rep. Hunter to close the so-called “custodian loophole” that some government officials use to hide public information on their private devices. The 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 public information requests can be ignored if the documents exist only on private devices. This bill would establish legal procedures to put an end to that.
Also among TPA’s legislative priorities are protecting public notice in newspapers and protecting Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law. Among the bills TPA opposes are:
• HB 2730 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, which would weaken Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law, which protects defendants with modest means 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. TPA supports fine-tuning the law to prevent abuse of the legal system, but opposes the wholesale changes that would gut the law as it was written.
• HB 1229 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, would allow governmental entities to meet notice requirements by simply posting notices on their government websites, which have notoriously low readership. Worse yet, they could satisfy notice requirements with social media. Publishing notices in newspapers would be an option, not a requirement.
TPA’s Legislative Advisory Committee continues tracking more than 200 bills relating to transparency, public notices in newspapers and other topics important to Texas newspapers.
Our most effective lobbyists are Texas publishers themselves. At this point in the session we are calling on members to call legislators on key committees or even come to Austin to testify for or against the bills being heard.
We know how busy our TPA members are, so we don’t make these requests frivolously. If we ask for you to call specific lawmakers , please do so. And if we ask you to come testify, please come to Austin when we need you most.
Our legislative program is strong and getting stronger. That is largely due to the commitment of our members to transparency and government accountability. Thank you for everything you do to make Texas stronger every day.