TPA pushes for transparency reform

Legislative sessions are always hectic, but the 2019 session is one of the busiest ever for the Texas Press Association. As of the March 8 filing deadline for regular legislation, lawmakers filed 7,081 bills. That figure does not include 1,524 resolutions covering everything from birthday congratulations to calls for constitutional amendments.

Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

TPA’s Legislative Advisory Committee is tracking more than 200 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. 
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. Bills such as HB 2730 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would weaken this critical 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. Another bill, HB 3547 by House Speaker Pro-Tem Joe Moody, D-El Paso, is a thoughtful measure that preserves the law but tightens it where needed to discourage abuse of the statute.
• Stop bills that would weaken public notice, such as HB 1229 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. This bill 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. 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 under the Texas Public Information Act. This became necessary after another yet another destructive court ruling. 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.
• Pass 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. 
• Pass 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 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 crucial 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.