Commentary: Texas must repair damage to Public Information Act


We Texans are fortunate when it comes to access to government information.

Correction. We were fortunate.

For more than 40 years, Texas’ open records law was one of the nation’s strongest. The Texas Public Information Act, originating during a time of scandal in the early 1970s, presumes all government records are available to citizens unless there’s a specific exception preventing a document’s release.

But our modern era of openness shifted dramatically with two state Supreme Court decisions in 2015 known as the Boeing ruling and the Greater Houston Partnership ruling. Both put many government financial records off limits to citizens.

If the damage isn’t repaired in this legislative session, Texas will be way back in the pack compared with other states’ transparency laws. Details on the spending of many millions of dollars in taxpayer money will be secret.

Sadly, the message to citizens will be: “Don’t bother asking. It’s none of your business.”

As we embark on Sunshine Week, which continues through March 18, let’s commit to maintaining Texas’ national standing as a leading right-to-know state. The free flow of accurate information has always been important. It’s especially so in this time of misinformation and fake news.

The so-called Boeing ruling allows all sorts of contracts the government holds with private businesses to be sealed from public view. The government or the private entity simply must claim a record’s release would lead to a competitive disadvantage — not a decisive disadvantage, but any disadvantage.

Do you want to see your school district’s bus or food service contracts so that you know whether your taxpayer money is being well spent? Good luck. Already, some of those basic documents have been ruled unobtainable. The same has happened to requestors seeking taxi and ride-hailing company filings with the government. Small-business owners who want to view the winning contracts awarded by a local community college also have been thwarted.

In one of the most unbelievable examples, the city of McAllen refused to reveal how much taxpayer money it paid entertainer Enrique Iglesias to perform in a city holiday festival. The Attorney General’s Office, citing the Boeing court ruling, agreed to the withholding. The state office has made hundreds of similar closed records decisions because of the Boeing case.

The Greater Houston Partnership decision prevents the public from viewing the financial books of nonprofits that are supported by taxpayer money and act in a government agency fashion. Often, economic development activities are farmed out to these types of nonprofits, as they were to Greater Houston Partnership. To prevent corruption and hold these agencies accountable, public oversight of how they spend money is necessary through the Texas Public Information Act.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are working together on the bipartisan issue of protecting the public’s right to know and each have filed bills to reconstruct what the Texas Supreme Court dismantled.

Senate Bill 407 and House Bill 792 address the Boeing decision, while Senate Bill 408 and House Bill 793 address the Greater Houston Partnership ruling.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and other open government advocates are pressing for additional transparency measures in the Legislature. One attempts to improve access to public records stored in private email accounts and on private electronic devices. Another seeks to resume access to dates of birth in certain public records, including crime documents and election filings, which fosters accuracy and informs the public. House Bill 2670 and House Bill 2710, respectively, address these two big issues. Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, authored the bills.

Meanwhile, open government supporters are working to block bills that hinder citizen access to government information. Many secrecy bills are filed every legislative session.

The clock is ticking on the time we have to preserve openness in Texas. The current Legislature meets until May 29. We should all urge state lawmakers to let the sunshine in as they do the people’s work.

Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit organization promoting open government laws and First Amendment rights.

Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit organization promoting open government laws and First Amendment rights.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Commentary: Austin ISD bond package isn’t perfect but deserves support
Commentary: Austin ISD bond package isn’t perfect but deserves support

Every child has the right to a quality education that facilitates the achievement of her or his maximum potential. As District 1 trustee on the Austin ISD school board, this is my goal for the district. Our awarded and overflowing schools in Austin’s well-heeled areas are proof that, for some of our students, we are approximating this standard...
Commentary: Austin ISD bond plan would create segregation
Commentary: Austin ISD bond plan would create segregation

Save East Austin Schools supports public funding for public schools. The problem is, the Austin ISD bond plan would discriminate against Austin’s low-income Hispanic and African-American communities. The large majority —75 percent of students — are minorities who typically attend Title 1, low-income schools. However, only 35 percent...
Letters to the editor: Oct. 23, 2017

I’m voting against the school bond in November for three reasons: • The school board didn’t break it down into pieces, so that the voters could choose which projects to approve. It’s all or nothing. • Bowie High School is already too big at approximately 3,000 students. Adding more buildings and more students is not going...
Opinion: What makes the Harvey Weinsteins of the world?

The chief of Amazon studios, Roy Price, has now resigned in the wake of allegations that he made lewd comments and propositioned a producer. Lists of accused sexual predators in Hollywood and journalism are circulating on social media. President Donald Trump’s long history of pawing and gawking at women has again reached center stage. Actress...
INSIGHT: How Russians pretended to be Texans — and Texans believed them
INSIGHT: How Russians pretended to be Texans — and Texans believed them

In early 2016, while researching some of the most popular U.S. secession groups online, I stumbled across one of the Russian-controlled Facebook accounts that were then pulling in Americans by the thousands. At the time, I was writing on Russia’s relationship with American secessionists from Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. These were people who...
More Stories