San Antonio Express-News: Lawmakers should let in sunshine

San Antonio Express-News
Editorial Board
Originally published May 7, 2017

Make no mistake: If state lawmakers leave a number of open government bills hanging this session, the public will be left in the dark.

A number of promising bills to make government more accountable and open to the public have been filed, but they were all, as of this writing, pending in committee. The legislation addresses any number of tricks public officials use to either keep the public in the dark or muddy the official record.

Open government benefits everyone except bad actors, and these bills are worthy of bipartisan support.

HB 2670 from state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would require former and current public officials to release public information held on their private devices. This is a frequent tactic to cloak public information.

HB 2710, another bill from Hunter, would make date of birth a public record. This sounds small, but a date of birth is a key way to distinguish between people with the same name. It’s a small but important record that would lead to more accurate reporting.

SB 407 from state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and a companion bill, HB 792, from state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would once again require governments to disclose contracts after they have been awarded.

In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court most regrettably ruled that public contracts could be kept secret for so-called competitive reasons. The upshot has been the public is increasingly shut out on how tax dollars are being spent.

While SB 407 has passed the Senate, HB 792 is pending in committee.

SB 408 and HB 793, also from Watson and Capriglione, would ensure taxpayers can see how government funds are spent with outside entities. The legislation is in response to another terrible Texas Supreme Court ruling that said funds the city of Houston paid to an economic development nonprofit were not public record. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent. SB 408 also has passed the Senate.

HB 3581, another bill from Capriglione, would allow the public to receive public records in their original formats. Oftentimes, government entities provide records in a confusing manner. They will take a spreadsheet, for example, and turn it into a PDF that can’t be searched or sorted. Or they will provide charts but no headings to those charts.

The Texas Press Association has endorsed these bills because they bring much-needed openness to our government. Each helps address big and small issues in public records, enabling Texans to have a clearer understanding about the decisions public officials make.

That said, there are two bills from state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, the Texas Press Association vehemently and correctly opposes.

HB 3387, and its companion, SB 2121, from state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would make it easier for public officials to sue reporters for libel. The other, HB 3388, also from King, would severely limit journalists’ ability to keep their sources and notes confidential. These are two bad bills that should be left pending in committee.