Bill targets out-of-state public information requests

What happens in Texas stays in Texas.

At least it should, according to a controversial bill filed by a state lawmaker.

State Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, has filed a proposal that requires government workers to release information sought under the Texas Public Information Act to Texans only.

If a request comes in from out of state, the bill lets government workers decide whether they want to comply.

“I’m a big fan of open government,” said Schofield, who served for years as former Gov. Rick Perry’s policy adviser, working on issues ranging from public information requests to voter ID. “The purpose of Texas government is to serve Texans.

“People from out of state appoint themselves as the steward to certain aspects of the government and file request after request,” he said. “It didn’t make any sense that we were held hostage by anybody’s whims to file public information requests from around the world.”

Current law says public information in Texas must be made available, if requested, to anyone who asks for it, regardless of where the person lives.

But some fear that the overall bill sets a bad precedent and would dramatically affect the Texas Public Information Act.

“It’s a shortsighted bill,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “We want as many people as possible keeping an eye on government and keeping it accountable.”

Proposed changes

Schofield said he has seen much time spent by state employees tracking down public information for people who don’t live in Texas.

So he filed House Bill 1118 to try to whittle down the work for government workers.

“You’d get somebody who would get it in their head that they would decide how Texas does this or that — and they don’t live here,” he said. “They would file requests over and over.

“We have 26 million people we answer to and that’s enough,” Schofield said. “There’s no justification for non-Texans to be able to demand that Texans serve them.”

He said he’s not trying to scale back the Public Information Act and he’s not trying to reduce the information that Texans themselves can access.

“This is in no way to limit the scope of the act,” Schofield said. “If someone tried to use it for that, I’d kill my own bill. … A Texan would be entitled to every bit of information he or she was entitled to before I filed this bill.”

Chilling effect?

Some worry that the bill could have a chilling effect.

“I understand the state needs to prioritize its resources, but this is the type of thing that makes people look at Texas and want more transparency,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston.

Especially because it comes at a time when lawmakers are working to boost transparency in state government.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has filed a measure touching on some of those concerns, requiring agency employees to disclose possible conflicts of interest, preventing contracts with business entities where high-level officials have a financial interest and requiring that officials higher up the chain sign off on million- and multimillion-dollar contracts.

Beyond that, there actually are many reasons non-Texans might seek public information from the Lone Star State, Shannon said.

Maybe they own property here, or their family lives here, or they plan to move here “and they want to keep an eye on the state government,” she said.

Research institutions, universities and think tanks might also need data if they are conducting 50-state studies.

If that’s the case, Schofield said, those groups can ask a Texan, perhaps a member of their university, to request the information they seek and they’ll have no problem gaining the information.

Shannon said the bill could be a real blow to the Public Information Act, which was adopted in 1973 after the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal led to charges being brought against nearly two dozen state officials and former officials.

“Our Texas open records law is rooted in the early ’70s, a real time of reform,” she said. “Just like the Legislature now, they said we are about openness and reform.

“We wouldn’t want to abandon that.”