Turnover among key personnel makes for interesting times in any institution — whether it’s a powerhouse football team or the Texas Legislature.
A number of players will be new to the blood sport of Texas politics — or at least new to their position — when lawmakers convene Jan. 8.
Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association
That makes the outcome of major issues less predictable than in recent years. And it means Texas newspapers must be deeply engaged on transparency issues such as public notices, public records and public meetings.
Topping the list of high-profile public policy issues faced by legislators will be property tax reform — a priority that failed last session due to irreconcilable differences between the House and Senate. More specifically, it failed because leaders of the two chambers — House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — didn’t compromise.
This time a new House speaker will take the gavel. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is closer to Dan Patrick on the left-to-right political meter than Straus was, but he is unquestionably his own man and a tough negotiator. Bonnen is more combative than Straus and is considered by his colleagues to be more likely to “blow up the room” during a policy brawl. How Bonnen and Patrick handle the differences of opinion and the political pressures that are inevitable in a session will be the most interesting show in 2019.
The two men will preside over a House and a Senate with more D’s and fewer R’s than two years ago. Democratic Party wins resulted in a dozen more Dems in the House and two more in the Senate. Yes, Republicans still control both chambers, but there are a number of nervous metro Republicans in moderate districts that aren’t as rock-ribbed conservative as others. They will be interested in resolving differences through compromise rather than running the ball down the other side’s throat. How will that impact the actions of Patrick and Bonnen? Stay tuned and we’ll see.
TRANSPARENCY REFORM EFFORTS
Outside the center-ring spotlight, there will be some changes in committee leadership. One change of great interest to newspapers is in the House Government Transparency and Operations (GTO) Committee. Former GTO chair Gary Elkins, R-Houston, smothered every major piece of TPA-supported transparency reform legislation in the 2017 session. Elkins was defeated in the November election, and it remains to be seen whether Bonnen will tap GTO vice chair Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, to lead the committee.
Capriglione was named a TPA “Friend of the First Amendment” for his sponsorship of the much-needed transparency reform bills last session. He is leading the charge again this session, along with Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who was dazzlingly effective in shepherding the bills through the Senate in 2017.
Several of those reform bills were made necessary by a series of appeals court rulings that blew huge holes in Texas’ long-admired open government laws. Among them are:
• The “Boeing” bill, made necessary by a devastating Texas Supreme Court ruling that a company holding a contract with a governmental body can withhold details of that contract on grounds it could weaken the company’s competitive position.
• The “Greater Houston Partnership” bill, the result of another ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The court ruled that the partnership, a regional economic development group, was not obliged to tell taxpayers how it spends tax money received from the City of Houston.
• The “DOB” bill, which would have restored public access to dates of birth in government records. The 3rd Court of Appeals ruled the information should be withheld for privacy reasons, throwing a wrench into not only the media’s use of the crucial identifier, but to the use of DOBs by lenders, credit check companies, commercial database providers, etc.
The Texas Supreme Court declined to review the Third Court ruling, giving it the weight of law and obliterating decades of precedent.
• The “Dead Suspects” bill, which was designed to plug a gaping hole in statutes providing access to police files. State law says once an investigation is closed, the information should be available to the public. But in numerous cases effectively closed by the death of the only suspect — i.e., the Austin serial bomber case — police have kept the case designated as “open,” thereby avoiding disclosure.
• The “Custodian Loophole” bill, designed to plug another loophole. State law says a record is deemed “public” based on its content — not on the device on which it’s stored. But there is currently no enforcement mechanism to compel a public official to provide a record from his privately owned device.
Of course, no legislative session would be complete without a fight over public notices in newspapers. At this juncture it’s hard to say who will file bills to weaken or eliminate newspaper notice, but we can be assured we’ll have to fight that battle again. Stay tuned.
Bottom line: It will be a tumultuous session. Talk to your state representatives and your state senators. Do it now. Tell them they need to support their hometown newspaper — and even more importantly, their hometown taxpayers — by supporting us on these important transparency measures.
Donnis Baggett is executive vice president of Texas Press Association. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.