By Donnis Baggett
Published in the Houston Chronicle
Originally published April 28, 2017
There’s no question Texans are suspicious of government. That’s why virtually everyone who ran for the Legislature last year sang the patriotic song of transparency.
Unfortunately, campaign season is now a distant memory. Lawmakers have spent four months in the company of lobbyists who are good at convincing legislators that the interests of their clients are more important than open government.
A tabernacle-sized choir singing the chorus of transparency has dwindled to a small combo that could rehearse in a two-car garage. It’s time for the others who once sang in the choir to remember the music.
Six bills must pass to restore Texas to what it once was – a state with some of the strongest open government laws in the nation. Citizens need to tell legislators now’s the time to deliver on their transparency promises. Then you can judge for yourself whether they walk the walk.
Last year the speaker’s office urged transparency advocates, governmental groups and other stakeholders to hammer out transparency measures they could unite behind. After 11 months, these three bills were among the measures they agreed to support:
HB 2670 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would close a loophole that enables officials to get away with hiding otherwise-public records on their private electronic devices.
HB 2710 by Hunter would restore access to dates of birth in governmental records after the 3rd Court of Appeals ruled them off limits. Without dates of birth, it can be impossible to determine which John Smith is which. This hinders the work of mortgage companies, background check firms, data collectors such as LexisNexis and the media, which rely on dates of birth to specifically identify people arrested by police. It also will hamstring citizens seeking information on child-support evaders and sex offenders.
HB 3848 by Hunter includes provisions of the previous two bills, and also would require a governmental entity to notify a citizen seeking information if there’s nothing available. If the governmental entity has information but refuses to release it, the entity would have to explain why. Currently, the entity can elect to say nothing, fostering even more distrust.
Agreed-upon bills normally sail through committee hearings, but these three met stiff opposition from members of the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee on Monday. Now their fate is uncertain at best.
Here are three other crucial bills pending in the same committee:
SB 407 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and its companion, HB 792 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would repair damage done by a Texas Supreme Court ruling allowing businesses and governments to withhold information about their contracts with each other by claiming release of the information might put them at a competitive disadvantage. As a result, city officials in McAllen sealed information on how much they paid Enrique Iglesias to sing in their holiday parade. And the city of Denton sealed details on the largest project in the city’s history – a quarter-billion-dollar power plant being built with taxpayers’ money. SB 407 has already passed the Senate.
SB 408 by Watson and its companion, HB 793 by Capriglione, would undo another bad Supreme Court ruling – that a non-profit organization paid by the city of Houston to perform economic development work wasn’t subject to the public information act. Taxpayers can no longer see how that money was spent. SB 408 has passed the Senate.
HB 3581 by Capriglione would give a citizen who requests governmental information the ability to receive it in the original format. It also would provide details on how the data is organized and the heading of each column. (Some entities respond to requests by providing charts with no headings, leaving the requestor to guess what the numbers mean.)
A democracy without transparency is not a government run for the people, but one run on the backs of the people. The people can put a stop to that by telling their legislators what they think.
You’ll find contact information at www.legis.state.tx.us.
Baggett is executive vice president of the Texas Press Association.