Commentary: Texas House members have chance to save open government

  • Kelly Shannon
  • Special to the American-Statesman
11:27 a.m. Thursday, May 18, 2017 Opinion
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission awarded a $19.8 million contract to 21 CT, an Austin-based network security and fraud detection company, to build software to help detect Medicaid fraud. The American-Statesman made a request for the contract under the Texas Public Information Act, which led to a news report that spurred a fraud investigation.

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.

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