Transparency reforms find support in legislature

With only 12 days remaining in the current session of the Texas Legislature, we’re optimistic that transparency reforms championed by TPA for years may finally become law. Much can happen in the final days of the session, but so far lawmakers have been supportive of government contract transparency, access to dates of birth, opening police files on the deaths of suspects and access to public records that officials hide on their private devices.

Analysis By DONNIS BAGGETT, Texas Press Association

And there’s other good news: Legislators moved quickly to counter a mind-boggling appeals court ruling that legalized “walking quorums” — secret daisy-chain meetings by officials to handle business that's supposed to be conducted in public meetings. Through tough negotiating and intense lobbying, we were able to maintain the protection that newspapers enjoy under Texas’ anti-SLAPP statute, a law that makes it possible to get meritless nuisance suits dismissed quickly. And we've once again staved off bills aimed at eliminating public notices in newspapers, a battle that gets tougher all the time in an increasingly digital world.

The 2019 session hasn’t been a walk in the park, but it’s been a breath of fresh air compared to the dark days of 2017, when transparency measures were as popular as fire ants at a picnic. As of today (May 15), here’s where things stand on key bills of interest to TPA members:

HOUSE

• HB 81 by Terry Canales D-Edinburg — Senate sponsor Hinojosa

Status: Sent to governor on May 6.

(Companion SB 402 by Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen)

Would give the public access to information related to parades, concerts or other entertainment events open to the general public that are paid for with public funds. 

• HB 93 by Terry Canales D-Edinburg

Status: Recommended for Senate Local/Uncontested Calendar

Would amend Code of Criminal Procedure so that any signed order issued by a magistrate shall include the magistrate's signature.

• HB 440 by Jim Murphy, R-Houston

Status: Senate approved but adopted one floor amendment

Would require a political subdivision that maintains a website to post on the website notice of general obligation bond election and sample ballot.

• HB 477 by Jim Murphy, R-Houston

Status: Sent to the governor May 15

Would require cities, counties and other local governmental bodies, in addition to current newspaper-inclusive public notice requirements, to web post notice of intention to issue certificates of obligation and related petition and election information.

• HB 1655 by Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi

(Companion SB 1318 by Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas)

Status: Set on Senate May 16 Calendar 

Would amend Texas Public Information Act by not authorizing a governmental body to withhold a date of birth under most conditions.

• HB 2340 by Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville

Status: Set on Senate May 16 Calendar

Would amend Government Code by requiring the creation of a study group to explore issues related to the use of unmanned aircraft in responding to and recovering from a disaster.

• HB 2730 by Jeff Leach, R-Plano

Status: Reported favorably from Senate State Affairs on May 14, placed on Senate calendar for May 16

Would amend Chapter 27 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code known as the "Anti-SLAPP" law, by revising procedures for dismissal of lawsuits based on or arising from the exercise of First Amendment rights in commenting on matters of public concern.

 

SENATE

• SB 325 by Joan Huffman, R-Houston

(Companion HB 629 by Landgraf)

Status: Signed by governor on May 7

Would require the state Office of Court Administration to establish and maintain a protective order registry and to web post the database in a searchable form that is accessible to the public. 

• SB 494 by Joan Huffman, R-Houston

Status: Set on May 16 House Calendar

Would amend the Texas Open Meetings Act to allow a governmental body to conduct meetings with as little as one hour of public notice during emergencies and would amend the Texas Public Information Act to allow a governmental body, if impacted by catastrophe, to temporarily suspend the release of public information. 

• SB 606 by Kirk Watson, D-Austin

(Companion HB 1502 by Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass)

Status: Signed by governor on May 7

Would amend Code of Criminal Procedure so that a court shall allow the public and the media to apply for personal information about grand jurors, and on a showing of good cause, shall permit disclosure of the information to the applicant.

• SB 943 by Kirk Watson, D-Austin

(Companion HB 2189 by Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake)

Status: Reported as substituted by House State Affairs on May 10

Would amend Texas Public Information Act to address unfavorable court rulings in Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership lawsuits that allowed nondisclosure of public information related to executed contracts.

• SB 944 by Kirk Watson, D-Austin

(Companion HB 2191 by Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake)

Status: House passed with 2 floor amendments on May 15 (must now be approved by Senate)

Would amend the Texas Public Information Act by closing the "custodian loophole" governmental bodies have used to deny access to public information.

• SB 1640 by Kirk Watson, D-Austin

(Companion HB 3402 by Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont)

Status: Report sent to House Calendars on April 26

Would amend Texas Open Meetings Act to address an unfavorable ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that found the "conspiracy to circumvent" section of the act to be unconstitutionally vague. The bill includes clarifying language about situations in which a member of a governmental body knowingly engages in at least one among a series of communications that each occur outside of an open meeting concerning any public business of the governmental body where individual communications are among fewer than a quorum of members.