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Abbott Signs TAB-Advocated Open Records Reforms into Law

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Austin, signed into law TAB’s signature initiative in the 86th Texas Legislature, a bill offsetting the damage from two disastrous 2015 Texas Supreme Court rulings in cases involving Boeing Aviation and the Greater Houston Partnership, the economic development arm of the City of Houston and surrounding areas.

The two court rulings have kept Texas taxpayers in the dark on how their dollars were being spent by private companies contracting with government agencies, or by non-profit organizations providing services previously delivered by government employees.

How big of a problem did the rulings create?

The Texas Attorney General’s office has ruled in nearly 3,000 cases since 2015 that state and local governments could reject requests for public information that had long been available to taxpayers.

Most of these rulings cited the Boeing decision as the justification to withhold the information.

SB 943 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, addresses both rulings and was signed into law June 14 by Abbott.

Abbott also approved another TAB-advocated TPIA initiative, a measure that ensures public business conducted in private electronic accounts – already classified as a public record – must be publicly accessible.

SB 944, also by Watson, closes a TPIA loophole that has prevented newsrooms from getting electronic records concerning public business that are in private email accounts or held on private electronic devices.

TAB and other Open Government groups such as the Texas Press Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas have tried in two previous legislative sessions to pass a fix.

The third time, was indeed, be the charm. 

It was a far cry from TAB’s 2017 effort to address the Boeing and GHP rulings, which was stymied by an obstinate committee chairman who later lost his office in the 2018 election.

Both SB 944 and SB 943 were shepherded through the Texas House by a longtime champion of Open Government, St. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

A fourth TAB legislative initiative, requiring that dates of birth contained in public records be, in most cases, open to the public, fell short.

HB 1655 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, addressed the 2015 Third Court of Appeals decision extending a common-law right of privacy to dates of birth of all Texans. 

The ruling has created numerous problems for Texas newsrooms because journalists use DOBs to differentiate between two individuals with the same or similar names. 

HB 1655 made it to the Senate floor but Lt. Governor Dan Patrick refused to bring up the bill for consideration on the Senate floor.

A quick response to another bad court decision
A Feb. 27 Court of Criminal Appeals ruling took the Open Government community by surprise when it

declared the “walking quorum” prohibition in the Texas Open Meetings Act was “unconstitutionally vague.”

The court’s decision was a real blow as it struck down one of the few criminal penalties in Texas Open Government law, but within a week Watson had teamed up with St. Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to file companion bills addressing the court’s concerns.

Thanks to Watson and Phelan’s leadership, SB 1640 made it to Gov. Abbott’s desk a scant three months later. Abbott signed it into law last Thursday. 

A huge defensive Free Speech win
TAB also successfully protected the hard-won 2011 Anti-SLAPP law, even as the legal community demonstrated that various provisions of the measure were being invoked in cases where the law was never intended to apply and was clogging court dockets throughout the state.

As the session began, HB 2730 and three other bills filed in the House and Senate, made it clear that well-heeled interests hoped to gut the law entirely and return Texas to the days when wealthy individuals and powerful companies could sue their critics into silence, even absent any defamatory statements.

TAB and the Protect Free Speech Coalition, however, did not let that happen.

The rewrite of the Texas Citizen Participation Act preserves the core Free Speech protections of the original law while addressing the legal community’s concerns.

It was the result of protracted negotiations, a marathon public hearing and the engagement of scores of different parties.

One of TAB’s attorneys, Laura Prather with Haynes and Boone – a member of TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee, marshalled a broad range of interested parties into the coalition and helped lead bill negotiations with two other First Amendment attorneys.

Another TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member, Stacy Allen of TAB’s general counsel law firm Jackson Walker, provided key and compelling testimony on HB 2730 that provided the bill sponsor, St. Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, the legal path to resolving the impasse.

Brad Ramsey, President/General Manager of WFAA-TV Dallas-Fort Worth, Bama Brown, a morning show host on KVET-FM Austin, were among those who testified on the importance of retaining the protections provided in current law.

The result, signed into law by Abbott on June 2, ensures the strongest possible protections for citizens, journalists and content providers, while addressing the legal community’s concerns.

TAB’s team effort
This year’s successful TAB legislative effort was due, in large part, to Texas broadcast general managers’ and news directors’ willingness to contact their local lawmakers when prompted by TAB.

Broadcasters also met with lawmakers in their home districts to discuss specific newsroom-related bills.

Another key component TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee which reviewed the 7,800 bills and resolutions that were filed and discerned each for potential impact on newsgathering.

This session’s committee featured Ashley Alcantara, University of Texas School of Law; Stacy Allen, Jackson Walker; Rob Cartwright, KEYE-TV Austin; Joe Ellis, KVUE-TV Austin; Marc Fuller, Vinson & Elkins;

Committee members Allen, Ellis and Prather provided key bill testimony as did other broadcasters such as Jaie Avila, WOAI-TV San Antonio.

The committee tracked a record 635 bills with a potential impact on newsgathering, the largest number of TAB tracked bills in 20+ years.

Of that group, 141 made it to Gov. Abbott’s desk, with the majority considered positive transparency measures.

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

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