Commentary: Texas House members have chance to save open government


Keeping our Texas Public Information Act operating effectively takes effort. That’s why open government advocates have worked with public officials and businesses over the past year to fine-tune the landmark state law.

Transparency legislation resulting from these work sessions emerged out of frank discussions – and with an understanding that some compromise is necessary.

Now, state lawmakers have the opportunity to pass negotiated open government measures to improve the Public Information Act and restore its strength, for the benefit of all Texans.

The Texas Senate took a stand last week by overwhelmingly approving House Bill 2328 and amending it to include transparency bills that had stalled in a House committee. The anchor legislation by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, providing quicker access to public information, was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Open government is a bipartisan issue, and Watson successfully urged fellow senators to include in the legislation other bills by Republican Reps. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, as well as bills Watson pushed.

It’s critical that the Texas House of Representatives join this effort to save open government by concurring with Senate amendments to the Lucio legislation.

The provisions would repair damage to the Public Information Act done by two Texas Supreme Court decisions in 2015.

A ruling known as the “Boeing decision” closes public access to many government contracts with private businesses. In some cases, it has become impossible to see how taxpayer money is spent on items such as contracted school services or even how much total money is spent on a contract, as in the case of singer Enrique Iglesias, hired by the city of McAllen to perform at a holiday event. The court ruling allows closure of those records.

The court’s ruling in the Greater Houston Partnership case closes off financial information about certain nonprofits that are funded by government and acting essentially as an arm of government.

A well-organized business contingent at the Capitol is lobbying to make sure these court decisions stand and to block the legislation to fix them, originally introduced by Watson and Capriglione. Texans who care about openness must speak up to their local lawmakers to counter this powerful force.

HB 2328 also includes measures by Hunter to give the public improved access to government records kept in officials’ private email accounts and to dates of birth in many government records.

A regional appeals court placed dates of birth off-limits, but birthdates are necessary in accurate news reporting on criminal justice matters and in the public’s vetting of candidates for elected office. Banks, background check companies and other businesses also need access to dates of birth in public records.

The updated Lucio legislation includes a requirement for governmental entities to tell a Public Information Act requester if there are no records responsive to the request or if documents can be withheld based on a previous attorney general ruling. This seems like common sense — and it often happens already, but it’s not required by law, so not every government does it.

This important bundle of bills serves all Texans and plugs holes in the Public Information Act, a law long known as one of the strongest of its kind in the nation that was born in the early 1970s amid a state scandal.

The Texas House of Representatives has the opportunity to uphold this modern-day tradition of openness and protect the public’s right to know.

Texans must speak out — and let it be known we expect no less.

Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit promoting open government laws and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Gun control about saving lives, not waging culture wars

WASHINGTON — You have perhaps heard the joke about the liberal who is so open-minded that he can’t even take his own side in an argument. What’s less funny is that on gun control, liberals have been told for years that if they do take their own side in the argument, they will only hurt their cause. Supporters of even modest restrictions...
Commentary: How GOP shows its true colors with tax breaks
Commentary: How GOP shows its true colors with tax breaks

Congressional Republicans are betting that their shiny new tax reform bill will distract from their repeated failures to implement a policy agenda that appeals to middle-class Americans. It’s a bet they are going to lose. Tax policy reveals a political party’s true colors – its priorities and who it advocates for provide unique insight...
Opinion: Photo captures Trump's notes for listening session
Opinion: Photo captures Trump's notes for listening session

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump held a worthwhile listening session Wednesday featuring a range of views on how to combat gun violence in schools. And while Trump's at-times-meandering comments about arming teachers will certainly raise eyebrows, for the most part he did listen. Thanks in part, it seems, to a helpful reminder. Washington...
INSIGHT: Tom Ridge is lucky to be alive. ‘I flatlined three times’
INSIGHT: Tom Ridge is lucky to be alive. ‘I flatlined three times’

Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary and Pennsylvania governor, has been dealing firsthand with first responders for decades, but never quite like on the morning of Nov. 16. Ridge was at a hotel in Austin, where he was attending a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. When he woke up, he wasn’t feeling well. But it was...
Letters to the editor: Feb. 22, 2018
Letters to the editor: Feb. 22, 2018

There are over 3 million dogs in shelters nationwide, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Of those, 670,000 are euthanized each year. Adoption is crucial in saving lives and appears trendy these days, especially in Austin. But consider this: Of those 3 million dogs in shelters, 360,000 are senior dogs. Senior...
More Stories