It was an underwhelming legislative session — not only because of the trash talk, partisan bickering and walkouts, but because of weather and health crises that were delivered by Mother Nature and made messier by the masked-up members of mankind. When the smoke cleared, however, the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature that ended with so much public business left undone was a positive one for the Texas newspaper industry.
Analysis By Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association
About mid-session, when bills were moving slower than power restoration in an ice storm, it became clear that the session would be a success for newspapers if two things happened:
1. If we managed to keep public notices in newspapers, despite a half-dozen bills to eliminate it outright and another dozen or so that would whittle away at it.
2. If we managed to pass a bill allowing public access to a nursing home’s aggregate information tracking infectious disease rates — crucial information that was withheld from the public in the COVID crisis when citizens needed it most.
We achieved those goals. We also helped pass a bill to stop governmental entities from filing one catastrophe notice after another so they can avoid dealing with open records requests. So by the limited expectations we had for 2021, it was a good session.
Newspapers won again on the public notice front because we play good defense. But we’re concerned that defense alone won’t be enough when 2023 rolls around. We see more anti-newspaper notice bills every session, and almost all those bills have four things in common:
They call for posting notices on government websites as an alternative to newspaper publication.
The bills are filed by up-and-coming young House members who say they don’t read print newspapers…at least not the print editions. Almost all of these legislators represent suburban districts and are in their second, third or even fourth term. Some now chair committees. With the new census, even more House and Senate districts will be in major metro areas. And while they have a metro paper, many suburban communities don’t have a smaller newspaper of their own.
Virtually all of the legislators who file anti-newspaper notice bills have either a negative relationship with a newspaper or no relationship at all.
These legislators were urged to file the anti-newspaper bills by government officials in their districts — officials who DO have a relationship with them; folks they see on the rubber chicken circuit — folks they have on their cell phone’s contacts list. These officials claim (a.) nobody reads newspapers anymore, (b.) newspapers are expensive, and (c.) their governmental websites, on the other hand, cost “nothing.”
With pressure increasing from representatives who don’t read a local paper, Texas newspapers need to come forward with a public notice reform bill of our own…one that preserves print notice, but adds a legal requirement for newspaper-centric digital notices.
That would mean mandatory posting of public notices outside each newspaper’s paywall, along with mandatory participation in TPA’s statewide public notice website, which is free to the public. A number of other states already have similar laws in place. The digital availability of newspapers’ notices at no cost to citizens has helped keep the anti-newspaper dogs at bay in those states.
An approach like is necessary to preserve Texas newspapers’ essential role as the third-party aggregators, certifiers, distributors and archivists of public notice.
We weren’t successful in passing a half-dozen much-needed transparency bills. The following bills met a slow, painful death in the Senate after receiving resounding support in the House:
• HB 1416 (putting an end to ignoring open record requests on grounds the government entity is being manned by a “skeleton crew”) died when it did not receive a hearing in Senate Business & Commerce (B&C) committee.
• HB 1810 (making public records available in whatever searchable/sortable program they’re filed in) died when it did not receive a hearing in Senate B&C.
• HB 3015 (requiring a governmental entity to respond in some fashion to a PIA request, even when they’re denying it) died when it did not receive a hearing in Senate B&C.
• HB 3535 (restoring access to dates of birth in public records) died when it did not receive a hearing in Senate B&C.
• HB 2683 (rules for conducting remote governmental meetings in ways accessible to the public) which was our first transparency bill to make it to the Senate, never got referred to committee.
• HB 2913 (requiring the online posting of all government contracts) never got a committee hearing in either chamber.
TPA and other members of the Transparent & Accountable Government coalition will try again to pass those bills in 2023.
In the meantime, we’ll do what we always do during the interim between sessions: work to foster relationships between legislators and newspapers.
If you don’t know your representative and state senator, it’s time to get acquainted with them. Invite them to coffee or lunch. Thank them for their service to your community, and make them aware of newspapers’ essential civic role when it comes to public notices, public records and public meetings.
And before you part ways, make sure you’ve got each other in your contact lists.
It could be the beginning of an important relationship for you and your legislator — and for the citizens you both strive to serve.