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Abbott signs TAB-advocated accident report legislation, acts on remaining bills

Sunday marked the deadline for Gov. Greg Abbott to sign, veto or let legislation become law without his signature, but he didn’t take that long finishing the task of acting on several hundred pieces of legislation in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Among the bills awaiting his final action in the past week was HB 2633 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, a TAB-amended proposal that ensures newsrooms’ continued access to complete motor vehicle accident reports.

The original bill would have doomed Texas newsrooms to heavily-redacted motor vehicle reports that contained precious little information needed to accurately report a serious accident, let alone conduct a comprehensive investigative report on a problem intersection or potential auto defect.

Initial attempts to amend the bill proved futile but TAB persevered and with the help of bill co-sponsor Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, added House floor language that said complete reports are available to FCC licensed radio and TV stations as well as general circulation newspapers. 

That language was stripped from the bill on the Senate floor, but TAB soldiered on and identified a constitutional weakness to the secrecy effort.  

Armed with a brief prepared by TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member Stacy Allen of Jackson Walker LLP, TAB pressed its case with the lobbying group advancing the bill.

It conceded that the TAB House language protecting access to complete accident reports had to be reinstated to ensure the proposed law didn’t get overturned in court on First Amendment grounds. 

Abbott’s signing of the law, which went into immediate effect, is a major and unexpected win for Texas newsrooms.

Coupled with the passage of two other TAB legislative priorities, SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston and SB 308 by Sen. John Whitmire, it was one of the most successful sessions for newsrooms in recent memory.

SB 627 restores protections for newsrooms to report on third party allegations which had been stripped by a 2013 Texas Supreme Ct. decision.

The bill language was drafted and negotiated by another TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member, Laura Prather of Haynes Boone LLP, at the behest of TAB and the Texas Press Association.

SB 308 is an open government measure that makes public the law enforcement records of campus police departments at private colleges and universities.

There are more 20 such departments in Texas.

Abbott signed several positive open government measures in the past week that will ensure the public’s ability to view public meetings live and archived online as well as have access to significant governmental financial information.

Equally newsworthy was the last minute vetoes of several negative transparency bills.

Sadly, two of them didn’t start out that way.

HB 3511 and HB 3736 were two ethics-related measures by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston. Each was negatively amended in the Senate, without Davis’ approval, with the same egregious financial disclosure loophole.

Abbott minced no words in his veto messages for the two bills.

“Texans deserve accountability and transparency from their public officials. House Bill 3511 weakens the ethics laws governing officeholder financial disclosures. I cannot allow that.”
In vetoing HB 3736 he noted that he had called for “meaningful ethics reform” at the beginning of the session.

“Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans' trust in their elected officials,” Abbott said.

“I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws. Serious ethics reform must be addressed next session - the right way. Texans deserve better.”

Abbott also vetoed bills that would have closed the public’s access to criminal history information – SB 130 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas and HB 3579 by Rep. Robert Alonzo, D-Dallas.  

Alonzo’s bill included elements of another criminal history bill, HB 329 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston.

Abbott was forceful in his veto message for HB 3579 saying the bill “goes too far by allowing courts to expunge dismissed criminal charges-including serious felony charges-even when the defendant was convicted of other, related charges.”

He said it was a problem because “dismissal of a criminal charge is not necessarily an indicator of the defendant's innocence of that crime, particularly when a multi-charge arrest results in a plea agreement” and unlike orders of non-disclosure, which seal records from public view, expunction seals the records even from law enforcement.

“Under House Bill 3579, even those convicted of serious felonies could have parts of their criminal record expunged. This would deprive law enforcement of information about the offense history of habitual criminals, which may be useful in the investigation of future crimes.”

In vetoing SB 130, Abbott said the state interest in reintegrating one-time, petty offenders must be balanced with an employer's right to know what they are getting when they make a hire.

“Senate Bill 130 goes too far because it would permit individuals who have committed even serious felonies (including crimes like manslaughter, arson, enticing of a child, and improper photography of a minor) to hide their heinous acts from employers,” Abbott said.

He also noted that the bill placed no limits on the number of times repeat offenders can attempt to erase their past.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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