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Abbott vetoes the one Open Government bill that passed the 85th Texas Legislature

In a bitter end to an already brutal Texas legislative session for Open Government, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the lone piece of proactive legislation that TAB and other advocates had championed that lawmakers had approved in the 85th Texas Legislature.

Abbott’s office announced June 15 that he had vetoed 50 bills, the most by a Texas governor since 2007.

Among them was HB 2783, by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, a proposal that would have given judges the option to award attorneys’ fees, in very select circumstances, in Texas Public Information Act lawsuits filed by a requestor.

Under current law, a court can assess litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to a TPIA requestor if they “substantially prevail” in a lawsuit to force release of information. 

That means there has to be a final outcome in a trial.

In some cases, however, governmental bodies disingenuously choose to release the information on the eve of trial, well after the requestor has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs to win the information’s release.

Because there is no final trial outcome, a judge does not have the authority to award attorneys’ fees and the requestor is needlessly stuck with a hefty legal bill.

HB 2783 would have served as a deterrent against this long-lamented and spiteful practice of turning over the information at the last minute.

TAB presented committee hearing testimony of an Austin TV station that spent tens of thousands of dollars in an open records lawsuit, only to have the governmental body turn over the information before a judgment was rendered.

Abbott’s HB 2783 veto message said:

“By threatening the taxpayers with attorneys’ fees, House Bill 2783 creates an incentive for requestors of public information to sue the government as quickly as possible instead of waiting for the statutorily defined public information process to play out. The stated purposes of this bill could have been achieved without giving lawyers the ability to threaten taxpayer-funded attorneys’ fees awards against governmental bodies that are just trying to follow the law. “

It is especially frustrating to TAB and other advocates that Abbott’s office never brought up this concern despite several discussions with his legislative team about this bill over the course of the session.

“The claim that there would be a mad rush of TPIA litigation by requestors seeking to bilk governmental bodies of attorneys’ fees is specious, at best,” said TAB President Oscar Rodriguez.

“Lawsuits for public information are not common as they are very expensive, and this measure was an opportunity to put a stop to what amounts to official abuse by bad actors.”

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

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