Journalists put new Texas public records law to the test

By Sofia Tyreman

A new Texas law aims to provide more transparency through public access to government contracts under the Texas Public Information Act. 

Specifically, it’s intended to show how taxpayer money is being spent. News reporters are already using the law and learning about its scope.

Senate Bill 943, which passed the Legislature last year and took effect Jan. 1, 2020, attempts to address some of the issues generated by the 2015 Supreme Court case Boeing Co. v. Paxton, which weakened Texas’ open records statute. 

The law is “a good tool to have on our side in terms of making public entities provide clear information to taxpayers and everyone else in the public,” said Austin American-Statesman reporter Bob Sechler. 

“There are some loopholes (in Senate Bill 943), but at least it makes entities have to justify it,” said Sechler.

Under the new law, entities can still try to withhold information in some cases if the release would cause a competitive disadvantage or when a government has a series of reoccurring expenses, said Sechler. These are the loopholes the Texas Retirement System used in 2019 to conceal the total cost of renting an office space in an upscale building in downtown Austin. 

“We got partial information from this TRS thing, and I think the bill helped on that,” Sechler said, adding that TRS claimed the information release had nothing to do with the new law. “I think they gave it out partly (because of SB 943) and partly because of the political pressure and publicity.”

The Teacher Retirement System is seeking an attorney general’s ruling to prevent disclosure of the rest of the lease information, but Sechler said he is optimistic he’ll get the total lease thanks to the new transparency bill. 

Mitchell Ferman, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, shared similar thoughts about the new law’s potential.

“We’re now seeing where public money (is being spent), and that should be the case generally with public funds,” he said. “I’ve also heard anecdotally that people are just trying to reexamine previous contracts that would potentially now open up things to this new legislation.”

Ferman has not noticed a major change with obtaining information beyond gaining access to the Enrique Iglesias contract the city of McAllen agreed to – and withheld from public view for years – as part of its annual holiday parade in 2015. 

“It’s great that we got to see (an) update for some big events that happened in years past that were previously kept secret,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot more to do as far as transparency in Texas. I don’t think the legislature is done.”

And Ferman isn’t the only reporter who believes Texas’ legislature needs a bit of work. 

“When it comes contracts, I would say up until 2015, we had pretty good success getting them,” said News 4 San Antonio reporter Jaie Avila. “The Boeing decision complicated matters. I still haven’t noticed a big change since 943 passed.”

This year, Avila submitted public information requests to the city of San Antonio and Bexar county regarding taxpayer spending but has only received notice that the companies involved are waiting for an attorney general’s opinion to release the information. 

“Based on what I was told about 943, there should at least be some basics that should have come back right away,” said Avila. 

Although he’s glad the bill passed, Avila plans to continue to testify in committee hearings at the state capitol to voice his concerns. He said the issue lies with the records custodians and the city attorneys in the open records departments, who seem more concerned with contractors’ privacy rights than making information available to the public.  

“They still have the ability to delay us getting records back by months just by sending it to the Attorney General’s Office,” Avila said. “In a lot of cases, the higher-ups probably don’t know the specifics of what should’ve changed as of Jan. 1.”

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Sofia Tyreman has been an intern with the FOI Foundation of Texas during the spring 2020 semester as a senior at the University of Texas at Austin.