Transparency bills are alive and well as session wanes

Pro-transparency bills supported by the Texas Press Association are alive and well with less than a month remaining in the legislative session. We’reoptimistic that lawmakers will pass long-overduereforms, but it’s still too early to celebrate.

Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

Two years ago the Senate consistently supported our open government bills. The House, however,was where good bills went to die, thanks to a committee chair who never met a transparency bill he liked and a House speaker who was reluctant to intervene. New House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, moved quickly to address that problem this year.
Bonnen axed the old House Government Transparency and Reform Committee — which never lived up to its name — and assigned most open-government bills to the House State Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. The rookie chairman has shown a commitment to open government and a willingness to move our bills — a refreshing change from recent sessions.
The session ends May 27, and the Capitol is a blur of activity. As of deadline here’s the status of key bills related to newspapers:
 • SB 943/HB 2189, by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would repair damage inflicted by the Texas Supreme Court’s Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership rulings. The court decisions allow governments and businesses to seal information about their contracts, keeping taxpayers from seeing how their money is spent.SB 943 passed the Senate and has been (sitting in) House State Affairs (since April 12), which earlier approved the companion bill, HB 2189. It awaits a vote of the full House.
• HB 81 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, commonly called “Boeing Lite,” would require governmental entities to disclose information about contracts for concerts and other public events funded by taxpayer dollars. The bill has passed the House and, with the Senate sponsorship of Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was scheduled for a vote of the full Senate on May 1. 
• HB 1655/SB 1318 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, would restore access to dates of birth in records under the Texas Public Information Act. This became necessary after the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled DOB’s were off limits. DOBs are essential to differentiate between people with common names.  HB 1655 has passed the House and has been sent to the Senate, where it awaits a hearing in Senate Business and Commerce along with SB 1318.
• SB 944/HB 2191 by Sen. Watson and Rep. Capriglione, is an “omnibus” bill addressing several different sections of the Open Meetings Act, most importantly would close the so-called “custodian loophole” that some officials use to hide public information on their private devices. The law says a government document is defined as public based on its content — not on the device that holds it. Public information requests are sometimes ignored if the documents exist only on private devices or in private email files. This legislation would address that. SB 944 has passed the Senate and has been approved by House State Affairs, which earlier approved HB 2191.
• HB 147 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would provide public access to police reports after suspects die. State law currently allows police to keep records sealed as long as a case is “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. HB 147 has been approved by House State Affairs and is awaiting a vote by the full House.
• SB 1640/HB 3402 by Sen. Watson and Rep. Phelan would repair damage done by a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that the Open Meetings Act is “unconstitutionally vague” in its prohibition of a “walking quorum,” a series of private meetings between small groups of elected officials to reach consensus on issues without discussing them in public. SB 1640 has passed the Senate and has been approved by Phelan’s House State Affairs Committee, which earlier approved HB 3402.  Calendars is expected to schedule a full House vote on SB 1640,  since it has already passed the upper chamber. 
Another TPA legislative priority is protecting Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law.
As originally written, HB 2730/SB 2162, a tune-up bill by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, would have weakened the law, which protects defendants with modest means from being bled to death financially by meritless nuisance suits. Leach listened to our objections and amended the bill to address our concerns. As a result, TPA now supports HB 2730, which won final passage in the House on April 30. It will now go to the Senate, where Paxton’s bill has not been heard.
No legislative session would be complete without bills to eliminate public notices in newspapers. 
HB 2808/SB 2162 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano and Sen. Paxton, would allow governmental entities to meet notice requirements by posting notices on their websites, social media, school newspapers, utility bills, neighborhood association newsletters or a combination thereof. Publishing notices in newspapers would be an option, not a requirement.
TPA strongly opposed HB 2808 when it was heard in House County Affairs, and the bill was left pending. It’s unclear whether the committee will call it up for a vote. SB 2162 has not moved in the Senate.
TPA’s Legislative Advisory Committee continues tracking more than 200 bills relating to transparency, public notices and other topics important to newspapers. 
Although committee hearings are winding down, some bills are still being heard, and we may still need TPA members to testify or to call lawmakers and seek their support. Please say yes if we ask for your help.
Our legislative program is getting stronger each session due to the commitment and involvement of our members.
Thank you for all you do to make Texas stronger every day.