Texas Legislature fails to pass major open government bills; FOI advocates look ahead to 2019

May 29, 2017

AUSTIN _ Major open government proposals to enhance the public’s right to know failed to pass the Texas Legislature this year in a disappointing anti-transparency display during the final days of the session.

Fortunately, open government advocates worked to block several bills that could have hindered the free flow of information. And, under resolutions approved by the House and Senate, lawmakers will study ways to improve the Texas Public Information Act before the 2019 session.

The non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas joined the Texas Press Association, the Texas Association of Broadcasters and other groups and lawmakers in trying to strengthen open government laws.

“It’s regretful that most of our proactive proposals did not pass because of opposition from big business and others resisting public information access. The people of Texas deserve to know how their taxpayer money is spent and how government decisions are made,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the FOI Foundation of Texas.

The FOI Foundation of Texas supported bills that would have repaired damage to the state’s Public Information Act done by two rulings from the Texas Supreme Court, known as the Boeing ruling and the Greater Houston Partnership ruling. Both rulings cut off public access to many government contracts. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, authored those two repair bills that stalled.

Open government advocates also backed legislation that would have given the public better access to government records stored in officials’ private email accounts and would have restored access to dates of birth in many public records, which are useful to lenders, news organizations and citizens who are vetting candidates for office. Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, authored those bills, which did not pass.

Transparency measures by other lawmakers also faltered. Most of the failed legislation died in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee without receiving a full House vote. The Senate approved the Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership “fix” legislation and amended several other House open government measures onto a related Public Information Act bill, but those efforts were quashed in the House. Meanwhile, House Bill 349 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-McAllen, which provided a limited fix to the Boeing ruling by requiring disclosure of taxpayer money that governments spend on parades and concerts, appeared close to passing but was killed by a senator in the final days of the session.

“Prior to this session, governmental entities, the Attorney General’s Office and requestor and media groups worked together to propose a platform of agreed upon bills to help increase transparency in the state of Texas and repair damage done to the Texas Public Information Act by recent court rulings,” said First Amendment attorney and FOI legislative committee co-chair Laura Prather. “Unfortunately, initiatives offered by this task force that would have made our government more open and accountable were stymied by private interest groups, paving the way for taxpayers to be left in the dark about how their money is spent and whom to hold accountable.”

One transparency bill that did pass the Legislature would make it easier for Public Information Act requestors who sue governmental bodies to obtain records to recoup attorneys’ fees if they prevail. House Bill 2873, by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, has been sent to the governor.

Open government advocates testified against legislation that would have been harmful to information access. One such measure that did not pass would have allowed governmental entities to reject public information requests from researchers, students and others living out of state. Other failed bills would have weakened existing laws that allow journalists to operate freely in informing the public. The FOI Foundation also worked closely with other Public Information Act stakeholders on fair legislation that addresses problems posed by burdensome requestors.

A handful of good open government measures passed requiring more video recording and archiving of public meetings. Additionally, a joint interim study on the Public Information Act will take place before 2019 because of a resolution sponsored by Watson, Hunter and Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville.

Overall, the FOI Foundation of Texas offered lawmakers “a clear reminder that government operates best in the light,” said constitutional litigator Arif Panju, co-chair of the FOI Foundation’s legislative committee. “An informed public is the greatest guardian of our transparent and open government, and we look forward to working with leaders in the Legislature willing to advance this bedrock principle.”

The FOI Foundation applauds legislators who stood up for open government with their actions and their votes. Lawmakers championing open government this year included Hunter; Capriglione; Watson; Smithee; Canales; Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso; Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston; and others.

“It’s a popular thing to say you are in favor of transparency and open government,” Shannon said. “It’s quite another thing to work for it and support it at the Capitol.”