Commentary: Let’s re-establish government accountability in Texas

Shining light on government to hold it accountable is hardly a new idea. In fact, Texas was a national leader in this realm for more than 40 years.

Sadly, the flow of public information in this huge state is slipping from the sunshine into the shadows.

Some state leaders have been dimming the lights, ensuring that even the most basic information about our government is getting more difficult to uncover: Who, really, is that candidate running for office? How are our hard-earned tax dollars being spent? Remember the Alamo — and how do we track its restoration money?

Texas Supreme Court rulings favoring secrecy — plus inexcusable inaction in the Texas Legislature — have severely weakened the Texas Public Information Act, a law rooted in the open government reform era of the early 1970s. For many years it was one of the strongest transparency laws in the nation.

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But let’s not be sad for long. It’s time to get to work and renew Texas’ commitment to government in the sunshine.

There’s no better time to launch this renewal effort than during “Sunshine Week,” March 11-17, a national celebration of open government and the people’s right to know.

Access to public information is essential to our precious First Amendment right of free speech.

In Texas, where everything is bigger — and where we need all the sunlight we can get shining on government — we’re going beyond a single week. We’re celebrating “Sunshine Month” throughout March.

The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is working with other public interest groups to highlight open government activities this month and in the months to come with the aim of repairing the Texas Public Information Act in the 2019 Legislature.

Several state lawmakers are already committed to this mission, including Reps. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin.

Hunter recently told transparency advocates he plans to step up his leadership on open government and free speech rights.

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“What is positive? First Amendment, freedom of speech. That’s positive,” he said. “Some of us must stand up, be vocal and take a positive, constructive approach. … Bottom line is good government — open government — settles everybody down.”

He’s particularly interested in working again on the “common sense” issue of ensuring dates of birth remain accessible in public records, despite a court ruling to the contrary. Among other things, birth dates on candidate applications help voters scrutinize the background of someone running for public office.

In last year’s legislative session, Watson and Capriglione authored bills that would have improved the ability of citizens to see how their tax money is spent on contracts with private companies and on taxpayer-funded nonprofits performing traditional government duties. Those measures didn’t pass, so there’s more work to do.

The FOI Foundation of Texas is joining with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Public Citizen, Texas Press Association, Texas Association of Broadcasters and other organizations to promote government in the sunshine.

This new coalition’s website is Look for plenty of action on social media channels, too.

On March 29, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting “Open Government, Engaged Citizens: A Conversation on Texas’ Public Information Act,” a free panel discussion in Austin featuring Watson and Hunter and moderated by Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune.

In April, the FOI Foundation of Texas — in cooperation with the Texas attorney general’s office — will kick off this year’s regional Open Government Seminars, offering detailed training in state open government laws. The first one is April 17 at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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We need ongoing attention paid to the people’s right to know. Information is what helps you speak out and hold government accountable, whether you are concerned about property taxes, education, the environment, health care or any other issue.

Let’s get the sun shining again in Texas.

Shannon is executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

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