Texas Senate approves major Public Information Act bills

The Texas Senate passed two major bills Tuesday that would restore public access to government records showing how taxpayer money is spent.

Senate Bill 407 and Senate Bill 408 are both authored by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. They won final Senate passage and now move on to the House of Representatives. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed identical bills in the House in the bipartisan effort.

Both bills would undo damaging court rulings that weakened the Texas open records law, long considered one of the strongest in the nation.

SB 407 would restore access to many taxpayer-funded contracts that were placed off limits to the public by a 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the Boeing Company. In some cases, governmental entities have refused to reveal even the dollar amount spent on a contract, citing the Boeing ruling.

Watson noted that the trade secrets exemption remains in the Public Information Act and can be used to protect companies’ proprietary information, but the bidding exception – long allowed only for governments – could not be used to keep companies’ contract information secret.

“We’re clarifying the separate functions of these different sections,” he said.

Senate Bill 408 would allow citizens once again to have access to financial information for non-profits that are supported by taxpayer money and performing traditional government duties, or acting in a government agency-like fashion. The state Supreme Court’s ruling in the Greater Houston Partnership case, also in 2015, undid longstanding legal interpretations that had allowed public access to those financial records.

“The Legislature intended to err on the side of public disclosure” when public money is involved, Watson explained. “It (the court ruling) has blown a glaring loophole into the act.”