By J. David McSwane
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published May 18, 2017
AUSTIN – Hopes of strengthening the Texas public records law, weakened in recent years by court rulings and attorney general opinions, were dashed Thursday as Republican House Speaker Joe Straus rejected a Senate maneuver to salvage bills that were dying in his chamber.
Last week, the Senate approved a half dozen amendments to a somewhat related House bill – including a measure to restore ordinary citizens’ right to access contracts between businesses and their government – and sent back a very different bill to the House.
Straus determined those amendments, authored by Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, weren’t germane to the original bill, which was authored by Rep. Eddie Lucio, Jr., a Brownsville Democrat who also took issue with the amendments.
“The amendments were well beyond the scope and were much more substantive than what my bill originally did,” Lucio said from the House floor. “I think it’s clear that we do want to work with our Senate counterparts. However, it should be respected that they stay to the subject matter of the bills we send them.”
Lucio’s original bill merely created an expedited process for government agencies to deny public records without an attorney general opinion, which is usually required.
But Watson’s amendments made sweeping changes to the public records law. Among other things, they would reverse a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling, in Boeing v. Paxton, that essentially made government contracts secret and an attorney general decision that made all dates of birth exempt from release under the Texas Public Information Act.
“I have worked and fought all session to protect the rights of Texans to know how their tax dollars are being spent and what government is doing in the name of the people,” Watson said in a statement. “That right ought to be beyond debate. Unfortunately, it’s not and some special interests that want to keep Texans in the dark are winning.”
It’s an ironic setback, considering recent embarrassing contract scandals in Austin and Gov. Greg Abbott’s demand for ethics reform legislation. The disclosure of government contracts are a key deterrent of unethical behavior by public officials who hold sway over which businesses get billions in deals.
“The more information you can put out, the better it is for ethical behavior and public understanding of how their government is operating,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
But despite his call for cracking down on unethical behavior in Texas government, Abbott has been silent on bills that increase transparency of government spending.
As it stands now, McAllen taxpayers may never know how much their city officials paid Enrique Iglesias to sing at a parade last year. And multi-billion-dollar companies who do everything from administering Medicaid to building roads can take taxpayer dollars without revealing how they got the deal or what exactly the deal was.
Watson noted that if there were political will, there’s still time to pass Senate Bill 407, which would undo the court’s Boeing decision.
But a last-minute victory doesn’t appear likely.
Bills to strengthen the records law received bipartisan support in the Senate. Bills in the House were blocked in the Government Transparency and Operations Committee, where Chairman Gary Elkins, a Houston Republican, sided with deep-pocketed business groups who want to keep records out of public view.
Elkins refused to give a hearing to several bills by Watson and fellow Republican Rep. Todd Hunter, of Corpus Christi. That’s when Watson punched through amendments to Lucio’s bill.
The House rejection is a major blow to public records advocates and news organizations, who view government contracts as among the most basic of public records.
“By Rep. Lucio refusing to concur in the amendments, the nail has been placed in the coffin for all of these pro-transparency measures,” said Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney who worked with lawmakers to draft the bills. “These actions have paved the way for the government to operate in secrecy, to refuse to disclose how taxpayer money is being spent, and to prevent any semblance of government accountability in Texas for at least the next two years.”