Open government bills moving forward, getting hearings at Texas Capitol

This week Texas legislators were busy hearing bills both good and bad for open government and freedom of information as end-of-session legislative deadlines loom.

The House Judiciary and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved HB 1766 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, that allows for continued reporting by the news media on third party allegations of wrongdoing. The Senate, meanwhile, passed its version of the bill, SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. These bills are positive for the public’s right to know.

A rough bill for open government is HB 1118 by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, which would allow government officials to deny Texas Public Information Act requests from non-Texans. The FOI Foundation and others testified against this bill in the House Government Transparency and Operations Committee. The foundation is urging others to speak out and oppose it. It has not yet had a committee vote. There are many reasons why out-of-state residents might need Texas information, including those who own property here; who are looking to relocate a business to Texas; who watch out for elderly relatives in Texas; and who are conducting research and need information from multiple states.

Another bill that would clamp down on public information was a public notice bill heard in the same committee Wednesday: HB 139 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. It would allow public notices to be removed from newspapers and be posted on a government website instead. Open government advocates point out that some 25 percent of Texans live in homes without Internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

House Bill 3997 by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, chairman of the transparency committee, is a favorable bill for open government. It would allow prosecution of open government law violations by the Attorney General’s Office in addition to local district and county attorneys. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas supports this bill.